What is a Windows app? How is it different from a desktop app or a program?

Before Windows 8 and Windows 10, you only heard the term app when people were referring to smartphones and tablets with Android and iOS, but not traditional PCs. Now we have all kinds of apps for Windows. What is a Windows Store app? What is a Windows universal app? What about a desktop app? How are they different from traditional desktop programs? Read on and understand the differences between all these terms and concepts:

What do apps and programs have in common? They are software!

If you look at the big picture, they are the same thing: computer software that instructs the computer or device they are running on, to do something. They also tell that device how to do what it is supposed to do.

What are programs or desktop apps?

When referring to Windows 10 and Windows 8, Microsoft and tech publications often use the terms programs, applications and desktop apps interchangeably. That is because they are the same thing: the traditional Windows applications that you install and use with the mouse and keyboard, since the first versions of Windows. The list of installed desktop apps is generally found in the Control Panel, in “Programs ->Programs and Features" or the old Add or remove programs window.

Here are the most important characteristics of desktop apps:

  • Desktop apps tend to have multiple features and can perform multiple tasks. Sometimes even a large set of tasks.
  • They work well only with mouse and keyboard input and less well with touch input.
  • In Windows 10 and Windows 8.1, desktop apps run with limited permissions but can be given administrative permissions by the user. Some applications, like security programs, cannot run correctly without having administrative permissions.
  • Programs can run in multiple instances in parallel. For example, you can open the same desktop app two or three times, or as many times as you need, and work with all instances in parallel. On a multi-display setup, you can display a desktop app on any of your monitors and on all of them at the same time, if you start multiple instances of the same desktop app.
  • Applications can be used on any version of Windows: Windows 10, Windows 8.1, Windows 7, Windows Vista or Windows XP. However, some may not be compatible with older versions of Windows, depending on how they were programmed.
  • They may install additional Windows services that gives them access to different system resources and perform more complex tasks for the benefit of the user.
  • Desktop applications can contain any kind of content. They are not curated by Microsoft unless they are distributed through the Windows Store (soon to be renamed to Microsoft Store).
  • Programs can be distributed as imagined by their developer, including through the Windows Store (Microsoft Store). Also, they can be installed from any source: websites, discs and other installation media, etc.
  • Desktop applications are always listed in “Control Panel -> Programs -> Programs and Features” and can also be removed from this location.
  • Programs can be manually updated by the user or automatically, via specific update services created by their developer or through third-party updating apps. If a program is distributed through the Windows Store, it is automatically updated by the Windows Store.
  • Updates to desktop apps may not always be 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, unless they are distributed through the Windows Store. The only requirements they have to meet are those created by their own developer(s).
  • Programs work on systems with Intel and AMD processors using the x86 system architecture. They cannot work on mobile ARM processors, like those used in smartphones, unless some form of virtualization is used.

What are apps, Windows universal apps or Windows Store apps?

When you hear about apps, without the word desktop being mentioned, we are talking about apps that are distributed through the Windows Store (Microsoft Store). They tend to be less complex software than desktop apps and programs.

Here are the most important characteristics of Windows apps:

  • Apps tend to have a limited number of features. Many of them perform just a single task or few complementary tasks.
  • They are designed to work with multiple input devices: touch, mouse and keyboard, etc.
  • Apps can be run only in one instance at a time, on one screen at a given time. On a multi-display setup, you can display an app only on one of your monitors.
  • They always run with limited permissions and can never receive administrative permissions from the user.
  • Apps can run only in Windows 10 and Windows 8.1. They cannot be used in older versions of Windows.
  • They cannot install additional Windows services.
  • Adult content is forbidden in apps for Windows that are distributed through the Windows Store (Microsoft Store).
  • Apps can be downloaded and installed from the Windows Store (Microsoft Store). It is their only official method of distribution. However, developers and power users, can sideload apps from other sources, just like on Android.
  • Apps are not listed in “Control Panel -> Programs -> Programs and Features”. They can be removed from the Start Menu (in Windows 10) or the Start screen (in Windows 8.1), the Windows Store or the Settings app.
  • They are automatically updated through the Windows Store (Microsoft Store).
  • Once an app is purchased and installed, updates are always free for all its users.
  • Apps must use a specific licensing model, created by Microsoft. More details can be found here: App Developer Agreement.
  • They must meet specific requirements from Microsoft, otherwise they cannot be distributed through the Windows Store (Microsoft Store). More details in the Windows App Certification Kit.
  • Apps can work on both ARM and x86 system architecture and processors, making them more flexible for use on multiple hardware platforms.

What are UWP or Windows universal apps?

Windows universal apps or UWP apps are the same as the other apps we mentioned in the previous section, but with one important difference: they are designed to work the same on multiple devices with different form factors. They look and work the same on tablets with Windows 10, desktop computers with Windows 10, Xbox One consoles and smartphones with Windows 10 Mobile. You can learn more, in this tutorial: What are Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps?

The story with Windows Store apps gets complicated

In the era of Windows 8 and Windows 8.1, apps or Windows Store apps were the same thing. The difference was only in the way you chose to name them. In Windows 10, the Windows Store accepts both apps and desktop apps. Therefore, things get confusing. For example, you have the Evernote touch app in the Windows Store for Windows 8.1 and the Evernote desktop app in the Windows Store for Windows 10. Those apps are very different and naming them Windows Store apps does not mean anything anymore: one is an app and the other is a desktop app or program. To make things even more confusing, Microsoft is now renaming the Windows Store to Microsoft Store. Therefore, if you really want to confuse people, talk about Microsoft Store apps. :)

Which types of apps do you prefer using: desktop apps or apps? :)

Now you know the differences between all the types of apps for Windows. Hopefully we have done a good job at clarifying your questions and making things more understandable. Before you close this article, let us know which apps you use most often and what are they: apps or desktop apps?