No more apps, please

The latest research from ComScore reveals what may be obvious if you think about it: you don’t really want any more apps on your smartphone. One top finding in the report (covered in Slate, Quartz, and probably many other places) is that 65% of smartphone owners in the US downloaded zero apps in a given month. People still spend plenty of time using mobile apps, but that usage is focused on a small number of very popular ones (which you can probably name). Looking at the stats on the share of time spent on various apps, once you’re past Facebook, Pandora, YouTube, and Instagram, no app cracks the 3% barrier (except SnapChat for the 18-24 set).

These data on the concentration of app usage, and the lack of attention to new apps, mirror the findings in the latest VisionMobile developer survey, which looks at mobile apps from the supply side, as it were. Their survey of over 10,000 app developers found that “the majority of app businesses are not sustainable at current revenue levels.” Furthermore,

50% of iOS developers and 64% of Android developers are below the ‘app poverty line” of $500 per app per month. 24% of developers interested in making money earn  nothing at all. A further 23% make less than $100 per app per month.

It’s not surprising that the mobile app market is like so many other media markets: music, movies, books: a very small number of huge hits, followed by a very long, and mostly ignored, tail.

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Mobile diary: mobile in Arlington

I’m still very happy with my Nexus 7 tablet, which I bought several months ago. When I’m not using it to play Candy Crush, I can use it for most of my browsing and media consumption needs. It’s also a great companion on my music gigs.

This morning, I had an opportunity to try out the Nexus in more of an enterprise mode, when I had to dial in to our daily developer call from the auto dealership, where I was waiting for my car. I connected to the Android GoToMeeting app from the tablet and was able to participate in the call from the comfort of the waiting area. Very smooth!

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Mobile diary: Windows is still in the game

According to some recent data, Windows still has promise as a mobile developer platform, and is seeing growing developer interest. Microsoft and Nokia are pursuing developers aggressively with a strategy that combines both carrots and sticks. In an interview in Bloomberg Businessweek. Nokia Global VP Bryan Biniak makes it clear that Nokia is happy to spend money to encourage app development, but also wants to make it clear that “Those who decline to build apps for Windows could lose valuable business from Microsoft and Nokia.” In other words, if your hotel app isn’t in the Windows store, over 100,000 Microsoft employees will make their reservations somewhere else, thank you.

What this means in concrete terms is that there’s finally a Vine app for Windows Phone, so I now have a new way to spend (i.e. waste) time with my Windows Phone.

Mobile dollars to donuts

Last Sunday’s New York Times included this article about the addictive nature of mobile apps, and the irresistible pressure to use mobile apps and services that are ever more intrusive and require ever more personal data. Specifically, Claire Cain Miller is concerned about Google Now, a new predictive search service that apparently promises to tell you what you need to know even before you thought you needed to know it.

Miller describes the arrogance of Google engineers (“…We’re just building the dream, and clearly users will have to get comfortable with it.”), and identifies a real potential problem with apps like Now: (“They give too much information to advertisers or the government, people fear, and eliminate the unpredictability of human existence.”).

Despite these serious issues, Miller finds Google Now to be first creepy, then considerate, then a trusted part of her daily life. So where’s the problem? Despite Miller’s happiness with this new tool, she still claims to be concerned that Google engineers (and presumably others in the Valley of Silicon) are not thinking enough about the “moral and privacy implications” of apps like these, and wishes that they would “fully engage with all of (technology’s) messy human implications.”

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Good luck. Google writes addictive, intrusive apps for the same reason that Krispy Kreme makes yummy donuts; they’re doing what they know how to do best in order to make lots of money for their employees and shareholders. I don’t expect that Krispy Kreme managers are that concerned either with the “messy human implications” of freshly baked donuts

It’s up to us as consumers to deal with those human implications through our actions. If you find a new app creepy, don’t use it. If you want to manage your diet, don’t eat donuts. True, this is hard and often not pleasant, but it is the most effective way to encourage those companies to change.

For all their talk about managing the world’s information and serving the greater good, Google, like other tech (and donut) companies, are public corporations driven primarily by revenues and profits, and by consumer reaction to their products. If customers don’t buy and use Google’s stuff, Google will have to stop making that stuff, and work on other (better, one hopes) stuff to please them.

Photo by Back to the Cutting Board from flickr

Mobile Diary: style vs. substance

Another interesting read from Michael Mace in his Mobile Opportunity blog, this time about style vs. substance in mobile applications. key quote:

Too often, we as an industry equate an app that looks simple with an app that’s easy to use. Those are two entirely different things. Stripping all the text out of an app and hiding all of the buttons makes for a beautiful demo at TechCrunch, but a horrible user experience for people who are trying to get something done with an app.

I agree with him on the subject of cryptic icons. I have a Windows phone, which has its own library of interesting symbols for different functions. Fortunately, Windows always provides text labels for icons at the bottom of the screen, so there’s always a way to decode the runes.

Today’s reading: VisionMobile on the “profit share trap”

Always worthwhile to read what the VisionMobile team is writing, and their latest blog post is no exception. This time they analyze the focus in the tech media on the “profit share” held by various players in the smartphone space, notably the huge percentage of total profit held by Apple, thanks to ongoing sales on iDevices.

Sameer Singh makes what should be an obvious point, that profit, and hence “profit share” depends as much on internal corporate issues as external consumer behavior. It indicates how well a particular company may be doing now, but not necessarily how successful they will be in the future.

For example, Apple dominates the smartphone profit rankings, due to the huge margins they earn on (mostly subsidized) iPhones and (mostly un-subsidized) iPads. Singh suggests that as smartphones become more mainstream, and hence less “cool”, those high prices and margins will be hard to sustain. The feature sets of different devices will converge, and price pressures will increasingly dominate consumer decisions.

On the other hand, I suspect that Apple has more flexibility in pricing because its products, iPads in particular, are more like “Veblen goods“, or luxury products that get more attractive at higher prices. Users of Apple mobile devices also consume more data and use more apps and web services than, for example, Android users, leading to further distortion of the app ecosystem, where enterprises favor iOS development even though Android has a higher market share.

We heard one example of this in a recent Mobile Monday DC panel on HTML5 vs Native Apps. Nancy Proctor, who heads mobile activities at the Smithsonian, reported that their development priorities are web first, then iOS, because they found that the people who use museum apps and web sites tend to be “culture consumers” who favor iOS devices.

I find this a bit worrisome, as it hints at a vicious cycle of app usage by “elite” (i.e. rich, educated) consumers, that then drives more development targeted at those elite users, and excluding the wider audience on other platforms who both use less data and have fewer options.

Mobile diary: apps are big, but maybe not a business

Interesting juxtaposition of stories in today’s Mobile World Live: Apps edition from the GSMA:
apps businessEricsson reports that mobile app usage has a huge impact on the performance of their networks, at the same time as Zynga is shutting down their mobile app subsidiary OMGPOP, as part of their effort to save their business. In other words, lots of people are using lots of apps, but that activity isn’t generating much money for the people who write them.

Put that together with the latest VisionMobile report on developer revenue, and it becomes clear that mobile apps aren’t a great business in themselves. This is nothing new; the data have showed for a while that the mobile app business is like the music business. Most developers (and musicians) don’t make enough money from that activity to live on, but that doesn’t stop them from writing and distributing apps (or for musicians, playing in bars and coffee shops).