In my experience, if you’re a struggling computer learner and want to take a big step forward, the most important thing you can take to heart is this:

You don’t learn “the computer”, or use “the computer”. You learn and use applications. (If you haven’t already, please read my mini-essay on this very important topic!)

The really short basics

From the Bit Cafe super-easy technology dictionary:

An application (often abbreviated to “app”) is a piece of software – that is, a program. It’s a set of instructions, written by people called programmers, telling a computer to do something. Letting you use applications is the main – really, the only – purpose of a computer!

There are applications running invisibly and anonymously in the background at all times on your computer, taking care of basic tasks that you don’t need to worry about (displaying stuff on the screen, maintaining an Internet connection, keeping track of the time, and lots more). The apps that you’ll directly deal with are the interesting ones: apps for writing email, creating artwork, playing games, visiting web sites, and a thousand other things. Each of these apps is represented with a name and an icon. You can start up any one of these apps, use it as you like, switch freely from one application to another, and then (if you like) shut down any application you no longer want to use.

Easy enough. Here’s a little more detail that I think is good to know.

Some really easy vocabulary stuff

Not surprisingly, “computer talk” is largely talk about applications. This simple guide to understanding that talk should boost your understanding (and your confidence) when people start talking tech stuff:

  • When a computer begins reading and following the instructions in an application, we say that the computer is starting up, or launching, the application.
  • While the computer is following the instructions, we say that the computer is running the application. (You can also say it’s executing the application, if you want to sound a bit more technical.)
  • Once the computer is finished, it may shut down, or close, the application, and will no longer be running it. (It can, of course, later start up and run the application anew.)

You can also use similar words from the perspective of the user (that’s you!):

  • You start, or launch, or open, an application.
  • You can then run, or use, the application.
  • When you’re done, you can (if you like) quit, or close, or shut down, the application.

You can even use similar words from the application’s perspective, like this:

  • An application starts up, or launches, or opens.
  • The application then runs. While running, it may actively do something you can see or hear (if that’s the sort of thing it does), or it may do something quietly and invisibly, or it may just wait for you (or another application) to take some action before it does any more.
  • If the application later stops running, it quits, or closes, or shuts down.

Applications are often big and complex sets of instructions, and funny things can go wrong when they run:

  • If the application shuts down on its own when it shouldn’t (often without warning, and with really inconvenient timing!), we say that it crashes. (An error message may pop up to inform you of that, though it won’t likely use the word “crash”; it’ll probably say “The application shut down unexpectedly” or something distant like that.)
  • When an application suddenly stops working – perhaps still showing something on the computer screen, but refusing to do anything – we say that it freezes, or hangs. (A frozen or hung application has essentially crashed, without fully shutting down. Generally speaking, anyway. There can be all kinds of reasons and symptoms behind hangs and crashes and all that.)
  • If the application won’t start up at all even though it should, the best descriptions are probably won’t start up or won’t launch. (If it seems to start to start up, but stops before it barely gets going, you could say it quits on start or crashes on launch or hangs on launch or whatever best describes what you see.)

Here’s an example. Your computer likely has an application called iTunes. This is software (that is, it’s a set of instructions) that tells your computer how to display a window that lists available music files (“songs”), how to accept your commands to pick and play songs, how to then play those songs through speakers, and much, much more.

  • You can launch (that is, open or start) iTunes whenever you like.
  • While iTunes is running, you can use it. You can tell it to reorder your songs, play a favorite song, delete an unloved song (“Sorry, Bieber!”), and so on.
  • Later, when music appreciation time is finished, you can quit (or close, or shut down) iTunes.
  • If some gremlin in the software should act up, iTunes could hang or crash just before you get to your favorite part of the Meatloaf tune. We hope that won’t happen.

(Sorry for the wordiness above, but the point is this: Computer-related vocabulary is typically easier to learn than you might think. Much of it consists of a lot of different words for the same thing!)

You’ve got apps

There are thousands and thousands of apps available for your computer, any of which you can add to your computer at any time. (When you add an app to your computer, we say that you install the app.) I have no way of knowing all of the apps that you have, and there’s no way that I can describe thousands of apps here.

But we can do one really useful thing here: take a look at many (if not all) of the apps that came with your Mac. (These apps are installed in the computer from the start; they’re pre-installed, we say.) Your pre-installed apps are the same apps that I and millions of other people have. And with just these apps that came with your Mac – that is, without your adding any new apps –  you can do a lot of things.

“Where are my apps?”

Your Mac comes with a lot of pre-installed apps. They’re grouped into a single folder, to keep things tidy and make the apps easy to find. The folder in which they sit is named, appropriately enough, “Applications”.

If you’ve later installed additional apps on your own, meanwhile, you could have installed them anywhere. That is, when you saved each app on your Mac’s hard disk, you maybe saved it in the Applications folder, maybe some other folder entirely. I’ve seen people install apps all over the place, making them hard to find later… While that’s up to you, it’s best to put apps in the Applications folder, keeping them organized and handy.

That aside, let’s peek inside the Applications folder. You probably have no trouble opening up that folder; if that’s the case, open it up, and jump ahead to “Meet the apps” below.

If you aren’t sure about peeking inside that Applications folder… well, there are several ways to go about it, which may vary with how your Mac is set up. So let me quickly outline one way that should be common to all Macs:

  1. Switch to the app called Finder. If you’re not sure what that means, click on the blue “face” icon – Finder’s icon – in the Dock. If you’re not sure about that (and it’s fine if you aren’t!), here’s a surefire way to get Finder’s attention: Click on the Desktop – that is, on the big “background picture” that you see when the screen isn’t covered with windows and stuff. Click anywhere on it. The Desktop belongs to Finder, and clicking on it will bring Finder forward. As in, “Yes? Finder here. You called?”


Click on Finder's smiling face in the Dock...

Click on Finder’s smiling face in the Dock…

...or click on the Desktop, like this open bit here.

…or click somewhere on the Desktop, like this open bit here.

2. Confirm that Finder is awaiting your command. The menus at the very top of the screen will switch to Finder’s menus, as you can clearly see by the first menu, labeled Finder. If you don’t see that, go back to 1 above!

No doubt about it – this menu belongs to Finder.

No doubt about it – this menu belongs to Finder. Finder is now ready and waiting for your commands.

3. Click on the Go menu, and from the menu displayed, click on Applications. Finder will “go to” the Applications folder – that is, it’ll open up a window showing you what’s inside the folder called Applications.

Click on "Go", then "Applications"!

Click on “Go”, then “Applications”!

There. Finder should toss open a window showing what’s in your Applications folder. I can’t say for sure what you’ll be seeing, though. Different people like to look at this sort of information in different ways, and one of Finder’s tricks is that it can accommodate many different views. Depending on how you’ve got Finder set up, you might be looking at your applications as a bunch of big icons, or some sort of list, or both. Like these possibilities, with each of the four windows representing a different way of looking at exactly the same content:

Four different ways Finder can show what's in the same folder!

Four different ways that Finder can show what’s in the same folder!

That one in at upper left seems the friendliest. If you want to see your window with nice big icons like that, make sure you’ve got that window front and center, then go to Finder’s menus again, and this time, click the menu title View, and from the menu that appears, click as Icons. Should work like a charm… right?

“Great, I’ve got lots of apps. But what are they for?”

That’s an excellent question. Here’s an overview of what many of your apps are good for.

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