Appocalypse Now

[Ok, admit it. You were about to tell me that I’d misspelt apocalypse. Perhaps I should have said app-ocalypse instead, but then I’d have had an unsightly hyphen floating around the headline. And then you may not have read this far.]

A few days ago, the Pew Internet & American Life Project published an interesting report, titled The Rise of Apps Culture. You can read the entire report here, or look at the survey questions here.

The headline findings may not be particularly surprising to many of you, but are still worth noting:

  • 35% of adults have cell phones with apps, but only two-thirds of those who have apps actually use them
  • Apps users are younger, more educated, and more affluent than other cell phone users
  • App use still ranks relatively low when compared with other uses of cell phones
  • 29% of adult cell phone users have downloaded an app to their phone
  • One in ten adult cell phone users (10%) had downloaded an app in the past week; 20% of cell phone users under age 30 download apps this frequently
  • One in eight adult cell phone users (13%) has padi to download an app
  • Among cell phone users with apps, the average adult has 18 apps on his or her phone

The findings above were based on a US-wide probability sample of 2,252 adults; the report also contains findings from The Neilsen Company’s Apps Playbook, which was based on a survey carried out in December 2009. It is also worth reading those findings.

I’ve been observing how people use apps on smartphones for some time now, learning by watching. And my initial reactions were somewhat sceptical; people seemed to use apps in faddish waves, then discard them and move on. The core group of apps used seemed to be somewhat smaller and stabler than it seemed. At least that was what I observed. A cynic might have said that the whole app scene was a bit like the Nigerian money transfer letter scam: you only needed a very small percentage of the target audience to be gullible enough to part with their money and you could be very happy indeed.

There also seemed to be some patterns in the nature of apps used; apps that were fundamentally executed solely on the device, which elicited few complaints; apps that needed to interact with servers, which had a higher likelihood of freezing the device, usually as a result of variable signal strength and the problems of state-knowledge. Although games transcended both types of apps, the more popular apps (news, maps, social networking, music and interactive games) all needed to move information between devices and servers, with the concomitant challenges.

Some time ago, I was very taken with an article written by Andrew Savikas averring that “content is a service business”. The views in that article influenced my perspective when I looked at the world of apps, leading me to believe that convenience, not content, was the driving factor in all things app.

So when I looked at the Pew study, I tried to test this theory.

The first place I looked at was the billing relationship, one of the big battlegrounds in the telcosphere. What could we learn from the study in this context? It transpires that downloaders prefer to pay for their apps via:

  • Billing from their cellphone provider (34%)
  • Credit card (29%)
  • PayPal (18%)
  • iTunes (12%)

Interesting. Score one for the convenience argument?

Having tested the billing arena, I then wanted to look at actual usage. How do apps do in the league tables for non-voice cell phone activities? Surprisingly poorly. In 9th place, after all the world and his wife: taking pictures, sending/receiving text messages, web access, games, email, video, music and IM all rank ahead. Which suggests again that the driving force is simplicity and convenience.

I’ve been aware for a while about the arguments to do with the “balkanisation” of the web via Rich Internet Applications, accusations piled against Flash initially, later Silverlight as well. You could argue that they are filling voids until HTML5 comes along. But you cannot argue that they have made impacts. The same accusations have been made against the app world, with suggestions that AOL-like walled gardens are emerging again in the guise of apps. But as long as people can belong to all the key social networks, as long as they can take, send and receive photos, videos, mail and text, as long as they can associate the data with location and presence where relevant and when they choose to, balkanisation is actually quite hard.

It all goes back to convenience. Findings related to the practice of culling unused apps bear this out; people guard the real estate on their phone screens jealously.

Data on the percentage of people actually paying for apps, along with the prices they tend to pay, are also very useful. I’ll leave you to read it in the report for yourself.

Incidentally, there was a second, similarly interesting report published by Pew recently, on cell phones and American adults. I was pleased to see confirmation that heavy adult texters also tend to be heavy users of voice.

As the iPad and similar devices permeate the space hitherto held by the smartphone, we’re bound to see significant change. Video will become more important, at least partly as a result of the form factor, both in the interactive sense as well as in the download sense. Every publisher worth the salt will attempt to create app-based walled gardens around their “content”, in the belief that there is a premium to be extracted there. Over time they will learn that the keyword is convenience, not content. Those with a broadcast mindset will enjoy the illusion of control for a while, only to be flattened in the path of the emergent interactives.

The first thing about app stores is they make it simpler for you to find something. Then they make it simpler for you to use the something, usually interactively, and to pay for the something. Period. Of course people will try and fragment the content, but that’s a losing strategy over time, one that has already been proven as flawed in every publishing sector so far.

5 thoughts on “Appocalypse Now”

  1. JP at the moment Planet Mobile doesn’t really separate its stats for dumb and smart phones (combination of historical data capture and large players wanting to muddy things I suspect), never mind differentiating between “dumb” and “smart” smartphones.

    I suspect we will find that the demographics, usage patterns etc of these groups are significantly different when we can really dril into them.

    Also, I am increasingly coming to the view hat the iPad style tablet is a new type of device, it is a smartphone design but with a useful screen size and imput capability and more power.

  2. Personally i am still confused by the Phone App culture, In my somewhat distorted viewpoint it may be more about bandwdith reduction, speed of repsonse or look and feel.

    In the desktop world, the web browser was suppose to kill of the thick application client, yet in the mobile work a “thick” client is now all the rage, and this still does not compute for me. Well Ok, more and more popular sidtes are using AJAX to add functionality to thebrowser based experience. so mobile devices need a better view point, but surely this can be done of http and a mobile browser.

    Mind you, as a windows phone user, my point of view is very distorted by lack of GOOD apps.. The only exception app for windows phone i have found (and use on a regular basis) is IMDB, but for almost all other internet based resources i use the mobile web pages.

    May be at 42 i am too old to “get it”…….

  3. Just to add to Lee’s point – I think apps make up for the low grade form/function of (even) todays mobiles (Compared to laptop PCs) – maybe mobiles alwasy will be, as by definition they will stay small and thus be hard to type into and look at.

    But with iPad level of form/function I think web browsing becomes far more usable thus Apps are probably less necessary

  4. Hello….I was the photographer at the Funding for Digital Event you spoke at on Friday. Here is a link to my blog with a slideshow of images. If you would like to write a paragraph or 2 of copy for my blog with link back to your blog please let me know. Alternatively leave a comment with link. Best regards Colin

  5. Good analysis. A key feature of apps is that they provide a “paywall” and an app store provides a convenient way to pay for the paywall. Web will win overall, but right now the web doesn’t have an easy way to implement a paywall. But I’m sure Google and Paypal will offer an easy to use mechanism.

Let me know what you think

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