Application software generally refers to any computer program used by a person for business, productivity, or entertainment purposes. Generically referred to as 'apps' or 'programs' by end users, application software encompasses various types of programs ranging from desktop or mobile spreadsheet, presentation, and word processing programs to large enterprise resource planning systems interconnecting the back office operations of an organization.

What distinguishes application software from other software is that they are usually tools which:

  1. Run locally on an operating system or within a browser
  2. Are designed to be used by and for end-users
  3. Are used for one or more tasks that benefit their users
  4. Do not interact or affect the operations of the system on which they runs other than to retrieve, save, or display information (the application does not change the way the browser runs or the computer works).

There are various forms of application software and they tend to be further sub classified based on the purpose of the task and the number of users it can support simultaneously. Application software examples are:

  1. Personal productivity tools, such as Microsoft Word ® and Excel ®, and Oracle OpenOffice ® Impress
  2. Presentation tools, such as Adobe Acrobat®, Microsoft PowerPoint ®, and web browsers
  3. Multimedia and audiovisual tools, such as Apple iTunes ®, CAD/CAM software used by engineers, Adobe Photoshop, Swish, etc.
  4. Programming tools, such as Eclipse Java or C++ compilers used to build other software
  5. Games
  6. Data management tools used to store information, such as Microsoft Access ®or Oracle 11g ®
  7. Business software used to integrate the back office operations of entire companies, aka Enterprise Resource Programs, such as PeopleSoft ®, Oracle ®, Siebel ®, or even UPS ® shipping and logistical programs
  8. Education tools, such as Computer Based Training (CBT) used to train workers and students, or products like Blackboard used by educational institutions to assist in educating students
  9. Other – the taxonomy can go on and refined even further, but you probably got the point by now.

Application software, until recently, used to run on computers and need direct access to the system upon which they ran. To use a word processing application, one had to usually use those delivered with their operating system software (such as VI or WordPad), or purchase and install this software on their computer device. With the advent of cloud computing and the latest web programming standards, the need to install software has pretty much been removed. One can play games and use application software on demand, usually referred to Software as a Service (SaaS) or Online Application Software, and store their information in "the cloud", which is another general term for servers and storage systems in remote locations.

In closing, one should also not forget that users themselves build application software to assist their tasks. A spreadsheet macro, a word processing template, and even web page mash-ups can qualify as application software if they automate tasks, entertain, inform, or benefit the user or others in any way.