What are Software, Programs, and Apps?

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Since you’re on a computer right now, you’ve doubtless heard the terms “app,” “program,” and “software.” But do you know what the difference is? The truth is, they’re all the same thing. But they are used in specific contexts:

The most basic word is software. Any part of a computer that isn’t physical (i.e. “hard”ware) is software. Software is written in code that machines can process. Software “does” everything on your computer. The hardware just sits there and gets used by the software. There are levels of software that build on each other: the bootloader allows the operating system to load, which allows programs to load.

A special note about the operating system. The operating system is a very complicated piece of software that creates an “environment.” That environment contains your desktop, your file explorer, and whatever you use to launch programs from.

The next word is “program.” Programs are a little more advanced than just “software.” Technically they’re mostly the same, but most things referred to as programs are what runs on top of your operating system. Microsoft Word is a program, and so is Mozilla Firefox.

An “app” is a newer term than the other two. Originally people used the term “application” to refer to anything that you could “apply” your computer to do. But now that smartphones are everywhere, the term “app” came to apply to programs that run on your phone. Apps are a special type of software: they are installed on your phone, but your phone doesn’t do much of the processing. Often apps will take your input, send it to “the cloud,” and display results to you. The “app” is just an interface between you and the computing power of the whole Internet.