The Growing Pains of Apps

What do you have 30 of, use 10 of each day and had none of 10 years ago? The answer — Apps. These little (and increasingly not-so-little) pieces of software that turn your smartphone into a super-power are everywhere. As of September 2017, there are over 3.6 million of them in the Google Play Store for Android, with over 2 million in Apple’s App Store. Despite the fact that it’s an 80+ billion dollar industry that has created about 2 million jobs and it’s only just 10 years old, we don’t tend to think about it very much, with the focus staying on individual apps more than the phenomenon of apps.

Ever More

In 2016, consumers worldwide downloaded a total of 149.3 billion mobile apps. That staggering number is hard to believe given that the first iPhone didn’t even have an app store. Although I had an app store on my trusty Nokia N95 ten years ago, it was more a curiosity than a core feature. Now, everyone from brands to celebrities to entrepreneurs to Governments to kids learning to code have rushed to create apps. Google’s Play Store sees over 5,000 new apps per day!

The total time spent using apps increased by over 150 billion hours year over year, reaching nearly 900 billion hours in 2016. On a daily basis, this translates to an average of roughly two hours per user — apps are a huge part of the daily lives of everybody around you.

Wherever people spend a lot of time, there tends to be a lot of money involved too. In 2016, app owners were paid over $35 billion in revenue across the iOS App Store and Google Play. If these two app stores were a standalone business, combined they would comfortably be on the Fortune 100 list and larger than Nike.

Ever Bigger

Just as software for PCs grew in size as computers became more powerful, the apps we use are growing. According to one piece of analysis, since 2013, the total space required on a phone by the top 10 most installed U.S. iPhone apps has grown from 164MB to about 1.9 GB, a 12x or approximately 1,100% increase. Of the top 10 most popular U.S. iPhone apps, the minimum growth in size observed was 6x (for Spotify) and the most was 50x (Snapchat). The largest single app, Facebook, initially occupied 32MB but is now 388MB.

The relentless growth of apps has forced the smartphones themselves to change too. The minimum storage capacity of the iPhone is now 64Gb, up from 16 on the iPhone 5S. iOS 11 introduced new features to help users make the most of the storage they have, including offering suggestions about offloading infrequently used apps with the option to remove the app while retaining all its settings and data in case it’s needed again. Google has introduced the concept of Instant Apps, which allows developers to break up their apps into smaller pieces so that users who don’t have an app installed can get enough of an app to get started without waiting for a full download.

Go Lite

Despite living in an era more noted for miniaturization, many apps are now so big as to require WiFi to download them. This is perhaps to be expected as features grow and developers feel a need to keep adding to stay current. Product managers LOVE to add new features; it’s visible proof of their creativity, their productivity — more features must be *better*, right? It keeps them “ahead” of the competition. But where does it end? Just one web page today is the same size as the entire code for the 1990s game DOOM.

App developers, who frequently live in a world of cheap connectivity and employer-supplied top-of-the-line phones, are coming to realise the importance of optimising their apps and taming this obesity crisis. Large mobile apps may be difficult or expensive for people in developing markets to download, while people in all markets without the larger storage variants of phones frequently run out of space as apps, photos, videos and music vie for space.

This has seen a rush by the major apps to create Lite versions, stripped back to their core features. For example, after over a year of availability in other markets, Facebook recently launched “Messenger Lite” in the US. Weighing in at just 5.5mb, it’s just 10% of the size of its sibling. Originally available only in developing markets, it came to FaceBook’s home market in July. In a way, it’s a pretty staggering admission — they’ve made a key app used by over a billion people so big and unwieldy that it’s been put on a diet like an obese patient and has received an enthusiastic response from the press, happy to forgo peripheral features for more free space on their devices and faster performance.

Choosing & Using

The Comscore Mobile App report 2017 offers some intriguing insights into how users choose, use and even organize their apps. 20% of users find the apps they’re looking for by proactively searching in the app store, while 13% see them promoted or featured in the app stores. 15% rely on recommendations from friends and 10% on reviews. Just 6% discover apps via adverts on TV, print or billboards.

Regardless of their size, while the number of apps is increasing and the size of apps is increasing, their usefulness to users isn’t keeping pace. Alphabet CEO and Google co-founder Larry Page is known to evaluate businesses on whether or not they pass the “Toothbrush test” — that is to say, are they going to be useful to people once or twice a day?

Despite the record number of apps being downloaded, a huge proportion of them are not retained for even 24 hours. Just 29.1% of Android phone users kept newly downloaded apps on their phones for a day with iOS users only slightly different at 25.5%. Retention data after a month showed only 3.2% of iOS apps and 3.3% of Android apps were still actively used.

While 56% of even app-hungry millennials only use up to 30 apps per month, a not insubstantial 44% use over 30 apps per month, with ⅓ of those using over 40. But in terms of time spent using each app, the number one app accounts for half of all time spent in apps, and the top 10 favoured apps account for 96% of time spent, leaving the apps outside a user’s top 10 fighting over scraps. ¾ of millennials use folders to arrange their apps, while only ⅓ of those over 55 do likewise. And while again ¾ of millennials place favoured folders and apps carefully within thumb reach, nearly half of those over 55 also carefully arrange their apps on screen for easiest access.

App Overload?

In a way, apps were an answer to the problem of discovery as more people gained access to the mobile web. Web sites are hard to discover on mobile and hard to access when you’ve to type a web address — apps gave you a handy little icon to press for instant access to the information, service or entertainment you desired. But as their number grew, the discovery issue returned. One answer to this problem has emerged in China — where “Super Apps” are becoming dominant — a super app takes services that its users would naturally want and integrates them, even if these services are unrelated to the? core product. Despite the potential for this to increase the size of an app, it works in situations where a single large app provides so much functionality that its size is outweighed by its utility.

There are of course plenty of apps that are seldom used but nonetheless highly valued when they are. Just because you may only use Uber once or twice a month and so it fails the Toothbrush test, that’s not to suggest it’s not very valuable on those occasions you do use it. But it’s instructive as to what happens to many apps that Google recently added a “Remember to Try” section in the Play Store — this reminds users of apps they’ve recently downloaded but not yet opened.

The Future of Apps

Apps provide myriad experiences — they can save your life, help your productivity or just waste your time enjoyably. They will make some people very rich, but 9 out of 10 apps will lose money for their developer. In most cases other than games, apps are simply a pretty and convenient facade to a service, and increasingly that service is device agnostic, being served from massive data centres to mobile apps, mobile web and desktop users alike.

I believe we’ll see a future of less apps, or at least less awareness among users of which apps to use. How we interact with our phones is changing. More people are talking to their phones — using voice instead of an app-first, touch UI. And the growing focus on AI by both Apple and Google means our phones are more likely to anticipate what we need before we get as far as thinking about which app will serve our needs.

While our choice of apps currently determines our service providers, that may change as we delegate more power to our phone. So instead of downloading the Spotify app to listen to music, simply commanding “Ok Google, play music” can see the choice of music app move to our digital assistant. Similarly, instead of downloading Uber, asking Alexa to order us a ride could see Lyft prioritised.

Apps have come to rule the era of the touchscreen smartphone. They will remain the format of choice for games and visually-driven activities that require pretty or complex user interfaces. But AI and digital assistants will see the biggest challenge yet to apps’ dominance and so their second decade will be very different from the first.