What is a Windows 8 App? How is it Different from a Desktop Application?

Before Windows 8 was launched, you only heard the term apps when people were referring to smartphones and tablets, but not your traditional PC. Since Windows 8 is a hybrid operating system, we now have both Windows 8 apps and desktop applications or programs. Isn’t it confusing? Sometimes it is, especially if you are new to Windows 8. That’s why I thought it would be a great idea to shed some light and explain the similarities and differences between these two concepts. What is an app? What is a desktop application?

What Do they Have in Common? They are Computer Software!

If you look at the big picture, they are the same thing: computer software. To prove it, let’s look at two definitions.

The first is provided by Dictionary.com: "software - The programs, programming languages, and data that direct the operations of a computer system. Word processing programs and Internet browsers are examples of software."

The second definition is provided by Wikipedia: "Computer software, or just software, is a collection of computer programs and related data that provides the instructions for telling a computer what to do and how to do it."

What do Windows 8 apps do? They instruct the computer on which they run to do something. That computer can be anything: from a desktop computer to a laptop, to a tablet, hybrid or smartphone.

Desktop programs or desktop applications do the same thing.

However, there are some important differences that set them apart. Let’s look at them in more detail.

What is Special About Desktop Programs & Applications?

What’s special about desktop applications is that they tend to be more complex software. Here are some of their most important characteristics:

  • They generally have multiple features and can perform multiple tasks. Sometimes even a large set of tasks.
  • Desktop applications work well only with mouse and keyboard input.
  • They can work using almost any window size, from taking the full-screen space to just a few inches of it. They can be minimized or maximized. They can be run side by side, using the Snap feature in Windows 8.
  • Desktop applications can be used simultaneously on different monitors (in case of a multi-display setup). On each Desktop you can open as many applications as you see fit and exchange with ease between them.
  • Users can switch between running applications using the icons displayed on the Windows taskbar, using the mouse or the Alt + TAB keyboard shortcut.
  • They do not have any live tiles on the Start screen, only standard shortcuts that show no live data.
  • In Windows, they run with limited permissions but can be given administrative permissions by the user. Some applications, like security software, cannot run correctly without having administrative permissions.
  • Desktop applications are able run on any version of Windows: Windows 8, Windows 7, Windows Vista or Windows XP.
  • They may install additional Windows services that gives them access to different system resources and perform more complex tasks for the benefit of their user.
  • Desktop applications can contain any kind of content. They are not curated by Microsoft in any way.
  • They can be distributed as imagined by their developer. Also, they can be installed from any source: websites, discs & other installation media, etc.
  • Desktop applications are always listed in Control Panel -> Programs -> Programs and Features and can also be removed from this location.
  • Desktop applications can be manually updated by the user or automatically, via specific update services created by their developer.
  • Updates to desktop applications are not always free. Their developer may charge users for updating the application to the latest version.
  • Desktop applications can have any type of licensing model: from proprietary models to free and open-source licenses.
  • They do not have to meet any specific requirements from Microsoft. The only requirements they have to meet are those created by their own developer(s).
  • Desktop applications are sold by their developers via any channels they want and Microsoft doesn't take any commission fees from the price of their purchase.

What is Special About Windows 8 Apps?

What’s special about Windows 8 apps is that they tend to be less complex software. Here are some of their most important characteristics:

  • Windows 8 apps tend to have a limited number of features. Many of them perform just a single task or few complementary tasks.
  • Apps are designed to work with multiple input devices: touch, mouse and keyboard, etc.
  • Windows 8 apps run only in full-screen mode. They cannot be minimized or maximized. They can be run side by side though, using the Snap feature in Windows 8.
  • They can be run only on one screen at a given time. On a multi-display setup, you can display Windows 8 apps only on one of your monitors.
  • Users cannot switch between running apps using the icons displayed on the Windows taskbar because they are not listed in the taskbar. However, they can use the Alt + TAB keyboard shortcut or the app switcher on the left side of the screen.
  • They may have live tiles on the Start screen, showing live data.
  • They always run with limited permissions and can never receive administrative permissions from the user.
  • Apps can run only in Windows 8. They cannot be used in older versions of Windows.
  • They cannot install additional Windows services.
  • Adult content is forbidden in Windows 8 apps.
  • Windows 8 apps can be downloaded and installed only from the Windows Store. It is their only method of distribution.
  • Apps are not listed in Control Panel -> Programs -> Programs and Features. They can be removed only from the Start screen or the Windows Store.
  • They are automatically updated via the Windows Store.
  • Once an app is purchased and installed, updates are always free for all its users.
  • Windows 8 apps must use a specific licensing model, created by Microsoft. More details can be found here: App Developer Agreement (Windows).
  • Windows 8 apps must meet specific requirements from Microsoft: Windows 8 app certification requirements (Windows). Otherwise they cannot be distributed via the Windows Store.
  • They are sold only via the Windows Store and Microsoft takes a commission fee between 20 and 30%, depending on how many people purchase them.


As you can see, there are both similarities and differences between traditional desktop applications and Windows 8 apps. One important difference to remember is that apps tend to be simpler and they generally provide a small set of features. If you have a mouse and keyboard as input devices, you will always get more from a desktop application. However, if touch is your only input device, then Windows 8 apps are a better choice.
If you are using a hybrid computer with Windows 8, it is best to use both apps and desktop applications and switch between them, depending on your needs and the input device you prefer using.

If there are other important similarities or differences I have missed, don’t hesitate to comment and share.