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What the App? A Beginner's Guide to Understanding Apps

“Apps” are everywhere you look these days, in both the mobile and desktop arenas. Choosing them can be daunting, so here’s a handy guide to help you get your bearings.

Just a few years after they started appearing, “apps” are nearly ubiquitous in both the mobile and desktop arenas. Smartphones are chock-full of them, and even laptop and PC makers are opening up “app stores” for users to peruse a variety of fun and business-friendly apps.

If you’re just setting out in this world, the sheer amount of choice can be daunting; hundreds of thousands of apps are available, regardless of platform. Here’s a guide for navigating the ever-growing app landscape.

What’s an App?

First, some definition: an “app” (an abbreviation for “application”) is usually a specialized program that’s loaded onto a mobile device or laptop.

Unlike large, multifunctional software applications like Microsoft Word or Outlook, an app is typically stripped down to just one function. For example, it may only track the stock market or consist of a game with simple graphics. Some apps boast multiple features, but often users prefer single-purpose apps that don’t sacrifice speed for functionality.

How They Work

Often, apps are free or low-cost, making them very attractive to users. They range in terms of purpose and interest, and it seems like there’s an app for everything these days. You can get news from CNN, update your Facebook status on the fly, input business expenses or even track your fitness goals.

While apps rely on an online connection for download, they don’t necessarily need that link to function. Many can operate offline — for example, you might download a “yoga poses” deck for your next trip or a “flashlight” app that turns your smartphone into a camping tool — but they do need an Internet connection to be updated. Developers are constantly tweaking apps, and staying on top of these updates can prevent interoperability problems down the line.

Getting Apps

There are numerous online stores for apps — check first with your smartphone or device maker’s website. Other top stores include Google Apps Marketplace, Amazon Appstore for Android and Apple’s App Store.

Making the Choice

The tough thing about apps is that so many seem worth downloading, particularly if they’re free. Keep in mind, though, that every app is rich in software code, which means they’ll take up space on your smartphone or laptop.

Feel free to swap out apps frequently, but also choose wisely from the start. Here are a few questions to ask when choosing:

•    Does the app do exactly what you need? So many apps are out there; don’t settle for good enough when you can have precisely what you want.

•    Are you getting the app from a trusted source? Hackers love to release free apps because they can hide malicious code behind a simple game or other function.

•    Does your device start to act wonky soon after you download an app? Not all apps play well with others. If you’re experiencing issues, delete the app and find another one that works better with your operating system.

Once you’re comfortable with downloading a few apps, you might find yourself collecting a whole slew of them, for everything from currency conversion to mileage tracking to racing games. Chances are, you’ll forget what it was like to live without them.

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