What Is Desktop Application Development? Basics & Examples

What Is Desktop Application Development? Basics & Examples

Desktop applications are programs designed to run on computers and use system resources to perform their functions. These programs run on top of operating systems such as Linux, Microsoft Windows, and macOS.

Some top examples of desktop applications include Microsoft Office, VLC Media Player, Windows File Explorer, and Activity Monitor on macOS.

Accessing and using a desktop application is a straightforward process.  Apart from those preinstalled on your computer, you first have to download the software from an official website. For instance, if you want to use Microsoft Excel, you'll have to look for Microsoft Office on Microsoft’s official website. From there, you can download the software to your computer and install it.

After installation, you can search for the installed version of the app on your computer and launch it. Most desktop applications usually include icons on the desktop window for easier accessibility. Desktop programs also store user data locally, which allows you to access numerous functionalities without having a network connection.

Desktop application development is the process of creating applications to run locally on computer devices. You can use programming languages such as Java, C#, C++, Python, Ruby, and JavaScript to create desktop applications.

This article will help you understand how the desktop application development process works and the different platforms you can use to create them.

Desktop application development basics

Desktop applications usually differ in terms of complexity and functionality. For instance, gaming software focuses on one specific set of features while other programs like Microsoft Office allow you to access numerous features. Some programs are easy to use. Others require particular skills and knowledge to operate.

Operating systems also determine how desktop applications run. Some programs only need the basic permissions allowed by the OS. Others require the user to grant more control through administrative privileges. For example, antivirus applications or others that need to make changes to OS-specific files or access secure directories may not work correctly if they are not granted elevated administrative privileges.

Desktop applications can also require certain hardware and software properties to run. For instance, Adobe Premiere Pro requires a computer to have at least 4GB of RAM, 2GB GPU, and a core i5 processor. Such software is programmed to reject computers that do not meet the minimum requirements. Developers can also specify in their code which version of an operating system their software can run on.

Below are some common types of desktop software:

  • Application software. Users install these programs to help them perform specific tasks. A photo editing app could be installed to modify images, for example.
  • Programming software. These applications allow you to develop, test, and troubleshoot other software apps. Such programming software includes Visual Studio, IntelliJ IDEA, and Eclipse.
  • System software. These programs provide an abstraction layer over the hardware, thus creating an enabling environment in which to perform functions. Examples of system software include game engines, operating systems (OS), and virtual assistants.
  • Browsers. These applications allow you to access the internet and web content. Examples of browsers include Firefox, Chrome, Apple Safari, and Microsoft Edge.

Desktop development vs. web development

Web development allows you to create websites and other web applications using programming languages. PHP, JavaScript, HTML, and CSS are some program languages you can use for web development.

Desktop applications differ from web applications in the following ways:

  • Connectivity requirements. Web development is highly dependent on the internet. Users need internet connectivity to access web applications. Desktop applications, on the other hand, can work locally. Users can perform different tasks, including storing and retrieving data, without connecting to the internet.
  • Development tools and technologies. In the past, desktop applications were mainly developed using high-level programming languages such as C, C++, Java, Paskal, Swift, Go, and Ruby. Conversely, web applications use languages such as JavaScript, PHP, CSS,  and HTML. Today, most of these languages have evolved in that they can be used for both web and desktop application development. For example, Python can be used for creating data science desktop applications as well as backend APIs for frontend web apps.
  • Installation/updates. With desktop applications, users have to download the installation or update files on their computer devices. Web applications do not require any prior installation, since they can be accessed via browsers, and users will generally have access to the most up-to-date software by default.
  • Accessibility. Desktop applications have a poorer accessibility score than web applications do. Since desktop applications are platform-specific, an executable package must be downloaded and installed which may be time-consuming. Alternatively, web applications can be quickly accessed by navigating to a specific URL.
  • Security. Desktop applications are more secure than web apps because they are protected by system-specific policies. Users or administrators have better control over desktop applications. For instance, you can see the types of resources and directories that a desktop application is using or accessing respectively. Web applications are hard to secure and are subject to vulnerabilities such as session hijackings, SQL injections, cross-site scripting, broken authentication, and malicious file execution.

The best desktop application development platforms

Choosing the right desktop development platform can help you save time, reduce boilerplate code, and increase your overall productivity. A good platform ensures you can access the dependencies or tools needed to create a high-quality desktop application.

Here are some of the top platforms for desktop application development.

Electron Js

Electron

Electron Js is a software framework that allows you to engage in the cross-platform development of applications using CSS, HTML, and JavaScript. Some of the popular desktop applications built using Electron Js are InVision, Slack, Twitch, WhatsApp, and Visual Studio Code.

Top features

  • Cross platform. Electron Js enables you to create cross-platform apps. This means you can use a single code base to generate applications for Linux, Windows, and Mac operating systems.
  • Open source. Electron Js is maintained by the OpenJS foundation in collaboration with hundreds of developers. This huge community can help with bug fixes and new feature development. This active community might just be able to help if you encounter roadblocks.
  • Automatic updates. Electron Js allows desktop applications to update themselves automatically once they’ve been installed. Programmers can use this feature to ensure that users have the latest features at all times.
  • Crash reporting and analytics. Electron Js collects data on how your application performs in real environments. You can use this information to identify bottlenecks and fix performance issues.
  • Web technologies. Electron Js runs on Node.js and Chromium engine which allows you to build desktop apps using JavaScript, CSS, and HTML. If you have a web development background, building desktop applications using the Electron Js platform is easy.
  • Good distribution. Electron Js uses Electron Forge to package all your source code into a platform-specific installation file which you can then share with end users. In other words, Electron Forge helps move your application from the development environment to production quickly.

WPF

WPF

Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF) is a framework that enables you to create the user interface of your Windows applications using the XAML language. You can use WPF to develop other application features like layouts, controls, resources, models, and documents.

Top features

  • XAML support. WPF allows you to quickly create your declarative UIs using the Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML).
  • Compatibility. WPF is compatible with the NET framework, which contains libraries and tools for building games, web, mobile applications, and other microservices. You can use these libraries to improve the functionality of your application.
  • Responsive layouts. A good layout should adapt to changes in the window or screen size. WPF provides an extensible layout system that controls the responsiveness of your UI components. The layout control system includes Canvas, WrapPanel, VirtualizingStackPanel, StackPanel, Grid, and DockPanel. With this out of the way, you can focus on implementing actual application logic.
  • Better input and command handling. WPF uses routed and direct events for mouse positioning, focus management, and text input. You can use these events to build highly interactive applications.

WinForms

Winforms

Windows Forms or WinForms helps you build user interfaces for your Windows desktop application.

Top features

  • Drag-and-drop editor. WinForms enables you to easily drag-and-drop and arrange elements in your application.
  • Interactive UIs. WinForms is compatible with the Net framework, which grants you access to libraries and other dependencies for building different aspects of your interface.
  • Data visualization. WinForms allows you to retrieve data from an API, JSON file, XML, or other data sources and display them in a tabular format using the DataGridView component. This feature speeds up your application development process.

Cocoa

Cocoa

Cocoa provides an integrated development environment, runtime system, and object-oriented framework for iOS and OS X operating systems. You can use Cocoa to build mobile and desktop applications. However, you will need to download Interface Builder or XCode to access Cocoa’s functionalities.

Top features

  • UI objects. Cocoa provides numerous UI elements that allow you to create user interfaces for macOS desktop applications. The UI objects include sliders, radio buttons, text fields, navigation bars, date pickers, dialog sheets, and drawers.
  • Performance. Cocoa helps you build high-performing applications through features such as memory management, lazy loading, multithreading, and concurrency.
  • Multi-language support. If you are building an application for different regions, Cocoa helps you localize your resources such as images, text, and some aspects of your UI.
  • Networking. Cocoa also adds desktop applications to communicate with external APIs and servers using sockets and internet protocols.
  • System interaction. Cocoa acts as an abstraction layer which enables you to interact with the file system and other OS-level functionalities.

Universal Windows Platform (UWP)

UWP

Universal Windows Platform (UWP) helps you create desktop applications specifically designed for Windows 10 and 11.

Top features

  • Responsive layouts and adaptive controls. UWP allows you to create user interfaces that adapt according to screen size or DPI (density per pixel). UWP applications are also compatible with different controls like game controllers, mouse, touch, and keyboards.
  • App store. You can distribute your UWP application to users through the Microsoft Store. You can also use the Azure Monitoring tool to understand how individuals interact with your program and make improvements.
  • Monetization. UWP allows you to monetize your application through techniques such as in-app purchases and ads or by specifying a standard download fee on the Microsoft Store.
  • Security and transparency. With UWP applications, developers have to specify the different resources their programs use. For instance, you might specify that your application uses the webcam, location, and microphone. Individuals can either permit or deny access to these resources.

How to get started developing desktop applications

Developing desktop applications can be engaging and rewarding. However, knowing how to get started can be challenging.

Below are some steps you can follow to get started developing your desktop applications:

1. Develop an idea and interest

Developing desktop applications can sometimes be frustrating, even if your project is rewarding in the end. Things can fail to work as intended, and to survive such times, you’ll need passion and interest. Dedicating time to solving different programming challenges is possibly the most important step in developing great desktop applications.

Establish clear goals as well, and determine why you want to develop desktop applications. This can give you a better idea of some of the apps you might want to build.

Clearly defining your goals could have a positive impact on your development journey or possibly even your career.

2. Design the application

When you’re ready to start building, it’s time to develop some designs and mockups for your desktop application. Designs help you expand your ideas and understand how your application might work.

You can use the following tools to create designs and mockups for your application.

  • Moqups. This is a great tool for designing mockups., wireframes, and prototypes. Moqups is also useful for visualizing and validating your app ideas. Furthermore, it provides an environment where you can share your ideas and collaborate with your teammates.
  • Adobe XD. This tool helps you create web, app, and game designs. You can also create interactive wireframes and prototypes for your application.
  • Mockplus. This is a simple drag-and-drop tool for creating prototypes for web, mobile, and desktop apps. The integrated drag-and-drop editor and pre-designed components makes Mockplus suitable for beginners. You can also collaborate with other teammates to complete designs.
  • Mockingbird. This software is also useful for creating wireframes and prototypes. It features a drag-and-drop editor which simplifies the design process. Users can also access hundreds of built-in icons and components.

During the design process, consider the following tips:

  • Function. Design should highlight how the application works and emphasize its key features.
  • Usability. Determine how your application will help users accomplish specific goals. Having an easy-to-use interface can boost overall user experience.
  • Responsiveness. Today, users have devices with a variety of screen sizes. For this reason, your application should be responsive and support different device displays.
  • Typography. You should use fonts that are legible. Unless necessary, avoid fancy fonts that take too long to load. These can negatively impact user experience.

3. Choose a programming language

Choose a programming language to help you achieve your goals. Some popular languages for building desktop applications include Java, JavaScript, Golang, C++, and C#.

Don’t try to learn all of the many programming languages at once—you’ll likely get overwhelmed and disheartened. At best, it would consume a lot of your time and affect your long-term productivity. Instead, try to master a specific language first. If you’re building native applications for Windows devices, you should focus on C# or C++. For cross-platform applications, you should embrace JavaScript, HTML, and CSS.

4. Select a development platform

Though you can create a desktop application entirely from scratch using native tools and languages, this can be unnecessarily time-consuming. Choose from a platform discussed in this section to optimize your development experience.

Electron JS is best suited for cross-platform applications. You can use a single code base to deploy an application on Windows and MacOS which saves significant time.

If you’re targeting Windows devices only, consider using Universal Windows Platform since it provides the latest tools for building apps. Apple has a somewhat limited development environment. Therefore, you’ll need to use the default Cocoa framework to create macOS-specific applications.

5. Install an IDE

Once you’ve chosen your preferred development framework, you can install an integrated development environment (IDE). An IDE helps you write better code, save time, and identify errors in your program’s source code.

Depending on your operating system and development framework, you can download and use IDEs such as Visual Studio, Visual Studio Code, and XCode.

6. Create the application

Now you can start development on your application. And remember, in the event that you experience challenges, you can consult online forums such as Stack Overflow and official docs to search for solutions.

At this stage, you should have a list of all features that your app requires to work. Rather than trying to implement everything at once, consider going step by step. In other words, finish implementing one feature before moving to the next. This strategy can help limit confusion in the development process and allow you to measure progress.

Though you can write code using basic tools such as Notepad, this style is not recommended because it makes it difficult to identify errors. You should instead use an integrated development environment since it has valuable features such as debugging tools, code insight and completion, and resource management. IDEs also allow you to quickly compile, package, and build your desktop application.

Whenever you are going for a break, remember to save your work. Though most IDEs can save your code automatically, it doesn’t hurt to double check. Otherwise, you may lose your code which could set you behind.

7. Test your application

Once you finish coding, you should test your desktop application to ensure all features are working as expected. Consider sharing your application with family and friends to get their feedback. Analyzing early user experience can be an important step to helping you improve your application.

If possible, ask for feedback from professional application testers. They might identify issues that could affect your application's performance, and they can possibly provide improvement tips as well.

8. Distribute the app

Once your application is complete, you can begin delivering it to users. Use the Microsoft Store if your app is for Windows users or the Apple Store for users who operate macOS.

Alternatively, you can host your application on a website and then direct users to download and install it from there.

To attract even more users, you can use social media marketing and digital ads to promote your application. Social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and TikTok may help you reach out to lots of people quickly, with little or no cost to you.

9. Track progress

Once you’ve distributed your application, you need to track how it’s being used. Use analytical tools such as Azure Monitor to keep an eye on your application’s performance and make improvements.

Once you’ve mastered a programming language and gained essential software development skills, consider gaining more experience by providing development services through Upwork.

Desktop application FAQ

Here, discover some answers to the questions you might have regarding desktop application development.

What is a desktop application?

A desktop app is a piece of software that runs on a computer device with an operating system such as Microsoft Windows, Linux, and macOS.

What is desktop application development?

Desktop application development is the process of creating apps that run locally on computers.

What is a desktop app development framework?

A desktop application development framework contains the libraries and plugins that help you to create programs. You can find examples of desktop development frameworks in this section.

Who creates applications?

A person who creates applications is called a software engineer or a developer.

To be a software engineer, you need some programming knowledge and skills. You can start creating your applications using these steps.

Are desktop applications dead?

Though web applications have become popular, desktop applications are still very much “alive” and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future.

What language are most desktop applications written in?

Most desktop applications are written using programming languages such as C, C#, Java, and C++. However, JavaScript, HTML, and CSS are becoming popular development languages due to frameworks such as Electron Js.

Where can I store the desktop application code to avoid losing it?

You can store your application code on GitHub. GitHub allows you to retrieve your code and work on it later.

Get custom desktop application services

In this article, we discussed what desktop application development is, as well as the steps you can follow and frameworks you can use to launch your development career.

Getting started with desktop application development can be challenging, especially if you’re a beginner. If you need help, consider hiring qualified desktop application developers through Upwork to help point you in the right direction.

If you’re a developer looking for work, get started by selling your services to hundreds of prospective clients on Upwork today.

Upwork is not affiliated with and does not sponsor or endorse any of the tools or services discussed in this article. These tools and services are provided only as potential options, and each reader and company should take the time needed to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situation.

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What Is Desktop Application Development? Basics & Examples
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