Apps for your phone. Apps for your tablet. Apps for your browser. Apps for your computer. When did we go so app happy?
Apps, short for applications, have been around since the dawn of the personal computer. An app is simply a computer program written to run on a specific operating system or device and perform a specific function, say word processing or number crunching or repelling an alien invasion in a game.
But the word has come to be popularly understood as a small program, downloaded from the Internet, that runs on a phone or tablet and does a specific task.
The American Dialect Society chose "app" as its word of the year for 2010.
A "killer app" is the application that is so compelling it makes the difference between a device succeeding or failing.
One of the earliest killer apps was Visicalc in 1979, the first spreadsheet for personal computers. It changed the personal computer from a hobby into a business tool.
Today's profusion of apps has been driven by two factors: the explosion of portable computing power in the form of cell phones and tablets, and high-speed Internet access approaching ubiquity that allows quick acquisition through downloading.
Apple pioneered the onslaught of apps. It released the iPhone on June 29, 2007. But many people don't recall that the Apple App Store in iTunes did not open until more than a year later, July 10, 2008.
Because Apple apps work only on Apple devices, app stores have sprung up for other mobile operating systems. Google and Amazon have app stores for Google's Android operating system; Microsoft has one for its Windows Phone 7 and BlackBerry has its own for its phones and soon-to-be-released tablet. Phone manufacturers and cell phone service providers may also have their own app stores.
Apple recently opened a store to download apps for its Macintosh computers, and Google opened one to supply apps for its Chrome browser.
Mozilla, which produces the Firefox browser, has announced an open Web app store featuring apps that can run on multiple browsers or operating systems. You can look at some demo apps at apps.mozillalabs.com/appdir.
As Internet connections get faster, we are nearing the day when the last piece of shrink-wrapped software will be sold and all software will be downloaded apps.
A British company recently announced an app for parents who are away from home and want to read to their children. Parents and children synch their iPads or iPhones by logging in to Apple's gaming portal. They can then interact on the screen with parents able to guide their children through the book or watch as they turn the pages. Audio allows talking between parent and child.
An app called "Confession," helps members of the Catholic faith prepare for confession.
In fact, a sort of apps arms race has broken out with each mobile operating system-maker touting the number of apps in its app stores as a selling point.
Apple claims more than 350,000 apps in its store. Estimates of Android apps range between 150,000 and 300,000 according to InformationWeek.
The recently opened Amazon app store for Android has only about 4,000 so far, but Amazon, unlike Google, pre-approves the apps, so the number should be building steadily. Estimates put the number of apps for BlackBerries in excess of 10,000.
But how many of this multitude of apps are useful is an open question.