Apps, Websites and Widgets
If you are new to computing, or have just acquired your first smartphone, the jargon can be quite difficult to understand. What even is an app? And how is it different from a widget or website? This page starts by outlining the difference between the three.
It goes on to provide some ideas about what to consider when choosing apps and widgets—or deciding which ones your children should be allowed. It also helps you to spot some common issues and problems with websites that may affect your usage of those sites.
Definitions of Terms
App. The word app is short for ‘application’, and means a computer programme: a piece of software designed to provide a particular function. The term is usually applied to software for mobile phones or tablets, rather than laptops or desktop computers.
Programmes (or programs). Like apps, these are pieces of software that are designed to perform a particular function. If you want to be technical, they are lines of code that the computer reads and then ‘executes’ to achieve a task.
Widget. This is usually defined as an application or small piece of software that enables users to carry out a specific function or access a service. It is not quite the same as an app, because widgets are usually extensions of apps, designed to carry out a particular function from an app.
Website. A website is a collection of pages on the world wide web (internet) that share a domain name, and are usually linked. Domain names include, for example, www.skillsyouneed.com.
There are more definitions in our digital glossary.
Choosing and Using Apps
Mobile has really changed the way that we interact with devices, and certainly how we consider programmes. When using a laptop or personal computer, most content is consumed via websites: you use a search engine to browse, and then read the content.
On a mobile phone or tablet, however, if you do that you are likely to be prompted to ‘download our app for a better mobile experience’.
Many of the major retailers and marketplaces, including Amazon and eBay, have their own apps. Amazon also has a separate app for its Kindle e-reader. Supermarkets have dedicated apps for online ordering. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Quora all have apps, and encourage you to use them when you are on mobile. Clubs and sports providers have their own apps. Games are also apps.
Basically, there are apps for everything from fitness tracking through to news.
How, then, do you choose which apps to download?
The answer, as always, is that it depends on your personal preferences, and what you want to do.
If you wish to buy from a particular retailer, the answer is obvious: you need that retailer’s app. Similarly, if you wish to use a social network, you will need the app—and you are likely to find that many of these are already on your device.
But what about other apps, where there are several possible options? How do you choose a particular fitness tracker, or calculator app?
There is no single right answer. However, there are several things that you can do to help you make the decision, such as:
Asking around. The chances are that someone you know will already have an app for this, especially if it is related to a shared interest. Ask your friends for recommendations, and why they like (or dislike) the app.
Read reviews on the Play Store (Android) or App Store (Apple). You can learn a lot about an app by reading the reviews on the store. In particular, you can find out whether a free app or game is genuinely ‘free’, or if you will have to pay to keep playing, or how often an app crashes. In this particular case, it is helpful that people with bad experiences are more likely to post reviews, because it gives you a ‘worst case’ scenario, and you are then informed about your potential experience.
Read reviews on independent sites. Parents in particular may find this useful. Children often come across apps via either their friends, or advertisements in other apps, and want to download them. Checking out reviews at sites like InternetMatters.org or CommonSenseMedia.org can provide insights into things that might be a concern—for example, whether users can communicate with each other through the app, whether the app is known for facilitating behaviour such as bullying, or whether the content is appropriate for children.
Trying it out. Many apps are free, or allow a brief free trial, especially educational apps and games. You can therefore try them out to see if you like them before purchasing. This is a good way to test something out and see if you are going to get the value from a purchase.
Another issue is whether you want a free app or are prepared to pay. Many apps have a free version with limited functionality, and if you want more, you need to upgrade to the ‘premium’ version. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to try to free version first, and see if you think you will get value from the premium option.
For maths apps in particular, you can find out more in our page on choosing apps to help with maths.
Why Would I Want a Widget?
It is entirely possible that you might live your life without ever needing a widget. However, it is also fair to say that some of them are quite useful—if that’s what you want to do.
Widgets are different from apps, because they only do one task. That task is (almost always) associated with an app.
Don’t think you have any widgets on your phone? Think again. You will probably have widgets associated with several of your apps. For example, the BBC Weather app has three widgets. Each of them places a forecast on your home page (a week, five days, or today). There may also be widgets associated with your clock, to place a clock on your home page. Have a look. You never know, you might even find something useful!
What Do I Need to Know About Websites?
On a laptop or desktop computer, you are still likely to do most of your internet browsing, and content-consuming, via websites.
On a mobile device, you can still use websites, but the functionality may be limited. Most websites now have mobile versions, which will be applied automatically when the site detects that you are using a phone or tablet. The site may also ask if you wish to continue to the website, or download the app instead.
Top Tip! Website or App?
If in doubt about whether to download the app, or continue to the website, ask yourself two questions:
- How often do/will I use this website?
- How much memory/space is there on my phone?
If the answer to the first is ‘probably not very often’, then stick to the website. If the answer to the first is ‘quite often, actually’, then go for the app unless the answer to the second is ‘it’s quite full, and upgrading apps is now a problem’.
The main thing to think about with websites is: how do they make their money?
There are several models, including:
Subscription-based. You pay to view (most of) the content, with just a taster available for free. Examples of this include the London Times newspaper.
Advertising-based. Some websites make money by selling advertising space on your screen. You may have noticed that SkillsYouNeed does this to some extent, but other sites are much more blatant about it: the advertisements are bigger, and you are more likely to click on them by accident. Sometimes the size of the adverts can interfere with your reading by slowing down the downloading of the site and preventing you from reading the content. You can use ad-blockers to help control these sites—but be aware that this may prevent the site from making enough money to survive. If it is a site you value, try to avoid using ad-blockers if you can.
External funding. Some websites are funded by other activities. For example, the BBC is funded by licence fees and (some) commercial activity. The big consultancies can afford to share (some of) their content because it brings in work. These sites are therefore free of advertisements or requests for donations. The most you are likely to have to do is provide your personal details. However, be aware that if you are not paying, you are not the customer either!
How the website makes its money is likely to determine its editorial stance—and therefore affect its content. This is an important consideration in deciding on the reliability of the site. There is more about this in our page on Critical Thinking and Fake News.
It is important to be aware that all sites will probably show some bias, and may try to steer you towards an opinion. For example, there is evidence that websites of healthcare providers—which provide a lot of good information about illnesses and potential treatments—are likely to downplay the risks of possible treatments. That is because these organisations make their money by treating people—and therefore want you to consider having expensive operations or procedures, rather than being put off.
Knowledge is Power
It is wise to be aware about what you are reading, downloading or otherwise consuming. Whether it is in the form of apps or websites, you need to be a ‘critical consumer’. When choosing apps and websites, it is wise to draw on other people’s experience and reviews—and especially if you are making decisions for your children. However, don’t be afraid to experiment. You may well find something really useful out there!