The History of ‘App’ and the Demise of the Programmer

As we reported earlier this week, Apple is busy sending out cease and desist letters to small, defenceless projects to defend its trademark application (it doesn’t actually own the trademark yet) for ‘app store’. This has prompted many a discussion over the trademarkability of such a generic term, and over the origins of the abbreviation ‘app’. Who came up with it? How old is it? To my surprise – the abbreviation is much older than you’d think, and in a way, it illustrates quite well the demise of the programmer. What? Read on.

Before we get started with this history lesson – let me remind you that this article is not about invalidating or otherwise making any claims about the validity of Apple’s application for the ‘app store’ trademark. Not only is this article about the abbreviation ‘app’ (and not ‘app atore’), trademark regulations are complicated, and I honestly don’t want to dwell too much on something as silly as this little dispute. As someone interested in language (it’s my source of income), I am fascinated by the origins of ‘app’ – nothing more, nothing less.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Oxford, thou failst me

Since we’re talking about a decidedly English term, there is only one authoritative source that really matters when it comes to finding out what its origins are: the Oxford English Dictionary. Through my faculty, I have online access to the full Oxford English Dictionary, which logically was my first point of reference. The OED defines ‘app’ as follows:

Pronunciation: Brit. /ap/, U.S. /æp/
Etymology: Shortened < application n.

Computing colloq.

An application, esp. an application program. Also freq. in killer app n.

This we knew – but the great thing about the Oxford English Dictionary is that they list the earliest known usage (to them, at least). This is the first starting point when it comes to the history of the abbreviation – and according to the OED, the earliest known usage was in 1985, in a product name… From Apple. In July 29 of that year, Info World wrote about MacApp.

The essence of the new wave of evangelism for Apple and IBM is to provide software developers with the tools they need to reduce software development time, a costly and labor-intensive process. One step in that direction is Apple’s recent beta testing of the new programming tools called Mac App, developed at apple by Larry Tesler. This is a Smalltalk shell that goes on top of Lisa Pascal and reduces program development time by providing frequently used components of the operating system.

I had trouble actually finding any references to this product, until people pointed out that the set of tools is actually called MacApp in horrid camel case – something publications in that day and age could still correct without unleashing the wrath of corporate America and its fanboys (I would ban camel case from OSNews if it weren’t for the obvious backlash we’d endure).

MacApp was, according to Wikipedia at least, arguably the first object oriented application framework, first released in 1985. It was a descendant from the Lisa Toolkit, was developed by Larry Tessler, and was based on Apple’s language of choice at the time, Pascal (or, more accurately, on Object Pascal).

So, can we end our search here? As you may have guessed by the fact there are XXXX paragraphs below this one – no, we can’t. The OED lists another usage of ‘app’ from 1985 – this time in the December issue of Info World. This time, we’re talking about Framework II, an office suite from Ashton-Tate, released in 1985.

Ashton-Tate has done a great job improving Framework with the release of Framework II, adding speed and size to the spreadsheet’s module, a vastly improved communications function, and many other improvements in overall operations. At first look, the user sees only one new menu (“apps” for applications) at the top of the screen, and the manner of operation is much the same. Still, the overall capabilities and ease of use are much improved with this latest release.

The ‘apps’ menu contains the telecommunications module and the spell checker; the rest is obscured in the screenshot. What interests me most about Framework II’s usage of ‘apps’ is that one look at the screenshot makes it crystal clear why the abbreviation is used instead of the full word – a lack of space. The word needed to be shortened simply because the developers didn’t have enough space. No design committees, no marketing team – just a practical choice out of sheer necessity.

Interestingly enough, Framework is still being sold to this day, and is currently at version X. It has certainly evolved quite a bit from the mid-80s when it comes to its functionality and goals – but the interface is still remarkably similar. The product goes way over my head, but I’m sure we have at least one person in the OSNews audience who uses it – you guys and girls never cease to amaze me in that respect.

At this point, the search could end, and you could conclude, like some other articles have done, that these are the origins of the use of the word ‘app’ – but no, there’s actually a lot more interesting stuff to say about this silly three-letter word. In 1985, there was another product that used the term ‘app’ (credit).

The venerable Atari ST was launched in 1985, and it ran Atari TOS – The Operating System – which was basically the GEM (Graphical Environment Manager) user interface running on top of GEMDOS. TOS identified executable files by their extensions – there are five different executable extensions in TOS: *.ACC, *.PRG, *.TOS, *.TTP, and – you can feel it coming – *.APP. Wikipedia states that this extension wasn’t very common.

Still, common or no, the Atari ST was a very popular computer, which was unveiled in january 1985 – earlier than MacApp and Framework II. With the Atari ST, too, just like with Framework, the decision to use app wasn’t inspired by the desire to be hip or trendy, but by the need to be practical. The TOS developers only had three letters to work with, and they needed a sensible abbreviation for the word ‘application’. It was a strictly utilitarian affair.

These three uses are from 1985, but as it turns out, this is by far not the first year the term popped up in the computing landscape.


From what I can tell (and thanks, Tupp!), the oldest, consistent, and still tangible use of the word ‘app’ comes from a rather unexpected direction – job postings. The magazine Computerworld had a special section dedicated to it, and the oldest copy which contains this section that I could find dates from June 8, 1981.

As it turns out, the abbreviation ‘app’ was incredibly widespread, and was printed in several job postings in not only this issue of the magazine, but in many subsequent issues as well. It would appear that not only programmers themselves, but also their employers used the term ‘app’ on a regular basis from at least 1981 onwards (but my gut tells me it was used before 1981 as well – this is just the oldest tangible proof I could find).

As you peruse the job postings from that era, it becomes clear that they are written in the style of telegrams – every character cost money, so you had to use shorthand as much as possible. Shortening ‘application’ to ‘app’ was just one of the many logical measures to cut the costs of placing job postings.

The interesting thing about this is that it automatically proves that ‘app’ was already a widespread term, since you can’t use abbreviations your target audience doesn’t understand (remember, no internet to easily look things up). For me, this means the term ‘app’ is way older than 1981 – we just don’t have any tangible proof from before 1981 (as far as the web is concerned).

The demise of the programmer

What I find most interesting about ‘app’ is the juxtaposition between the widespread use of the term 30 years ago, and the petty squabble over the app store trademark today. The programmers of yore used the term not because a marketing team told them to – they used it because they didn’t have much of a choice. Whether it was small displays forcing them to use abbreviations, file extensions limited to three characters, or job postings charged per character – the people that used the term every day 30 years ago used it because of the constraints they had to deal with every day.

The squabble today over the app store trademark illustrates better than I ever had imagined just how much the technology world has changed over the years. It used to be a world defined by its constraints, full of people trying to get the most out of the limited resources they had within these constraints. Today, the technology world seems far more concerned with silly patents, obvious trademarks, bezels, icon design, and whether or not Michael Arrington is a douche.

Thirty years ago, ‘app’ was used because programmers decided to use it, because it made the most sense within the constraints they were forced to deal with. Today, ‘app’ is used because the marketing department has decided to use it – or not, because the legal department has decided it can’t be used.

‘App’, then, illustrates the demise of the programmer – the programmers are no longer calling the shots. Marketing and legal do.


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