Attending to Smartphone Apps

The app economy, we’re told, is “bigger than Hollywood.” Apple likes to boast of how many jobs its app store has created, and even the president exhorts the young folks to program their phones, not just play with them.

Yesterday, The Verge published a great story by Casey Newton on the collapse of the app store’s middle class, where all those “bigger than Hollywood” dollars go to an increasingly concentrated set of firms, mostly in gaming, messaging, and entertainment, and the vast majority of apps make no money at all, and it is in fact quite difficult for developers to make a living on the app store.

Rather than take shots at folks encouraging everyone to give over their Christina Rossetti and become an app developer, as someone who has written more than his share of app reviews over the years I was struck by this paragraph:

There are now more than 1.5 million apps in the App Store (Android users have 1.6 million to choose from), but by 2014, the majority of Americans were downloading zero apps per month. And it turns out people simply don’t use most of the apps they do download. According to ComScore, the average person spends 80 percent of their time on mobile devices using only three apps.

(comScore isn’t saying people spend their time on 3 apps in particular*, they’re saying that there’s a more or less Zipfian distribution of how we use apps on our phones. They call this the “power of habit”.)

Zero apps per month, and 80% of phone time on just 3 apps. That sounded crazy, until one of my colleagues said that he thought he’d only paid for 4 or 5 apps in all his time with an iPhone, and they were all because I bugged him.

I still think new apps are interesting, in part because they can teach you new things your phone can do, or new ways to interact with information in useful ways. (Favorite examples here include Drafts and Workflow, which push the phone’s ability to pipe information among different apps.)

But one of the things this research does suggest is that it’s more helpful to focus on figuring out pedagogies for default apps, since that’s where people are.

What about you? Are you (still) obsessed with apps? Do you download more than a new app a month? A week? Daily? Let us know in comments!

* Unless you’re a millennial, in which case the 3 apps are probably YikYak, Venmo, and InstaSize. Sigh.

Photo “Gratis Appetizer” by Flickr user Michael Lehet / Creative Commons licensed BY-ND-2.0

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