Get It and Forget It: Smartphone Users' Fickle Taste for Their Apps

People with iPhones or Android phones may download a lot of apps, but they tend to use very few of them after a while.

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The lede of USA Today's business section one morning recently was startling: "Apps Rapidly Lose Their Appeal" was the headline over a story by Roger Yu. In the newspaper's characteristically brisk style, the story summarized an abundance of information:

Faster data networks and fancier phones have steered more Americans to embrace the apps software craze born of our fondness for the computer-in-my-pocket. But like other shopping experiences done impulsively, the appeal of instantly downloading the latest apps -- prompted by recommendations from neighbors, cousins, blogs and news stories -- loses its luster quickly, industry data show.

For American adults, mobile phones are nearly a universal part of daily life. A report last summer from the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project found that 83 percent of adults have some kind of cell phone, and over a third of Americans now have smart phones. An overview of the study showed how important mobile technology has become -- 40 percent of those surveyed found cell phones were an important tool in an "emergency" situation (a car breakdown, for example). "Mobile phones have become a near-ubiquitous tool," Pew concluded.

Among smartphone owners, nine out of 10 say they use them for text messaging or picture taking. A chart in the New York Times recently reported that, overall, the top app category in 2011 was weather (it was an especially turbulent year) followed by navigation tools, finance, sports, games, Facebook, and Twitter. The pervasiveness of the phones and the significant increase in smartphone use leads logically to the belief that apps must be increasingly important also.

While true, that turns out to be more complicated than you might expect. Anindya Datta, founder of Mobilewalla, an app analytic firm, told USA Today that there are about one million apps available for the four most popular mobile operating systems -- Android, Apple, BlackBerry, and Microsoft -- but only 10 percent of them have been "discovered." Another Pew report showed that half of cell phone users have apps, but only 16 percent of U.S. adults have ever paid for an app, and among those that own apps, only half report using them on a weekly basis. Kristen Purcell, the Pew researcher responsible for the most recent comprehensive report on apps, found that the overwhelming majority of smartphone users open five or fewer apps once a week, and that the novelty of apps tends to wear off relatively quickly.

Nonetheless, the statistics on the spread of apps is impressive, and is now nearly double what it was in 2009. Pew's report showed that the most commonly used apps are for the features that attracted us to the World Wide Web, e-mail, and mobile phones in the first place -- getting news and other information and staying in touch. Purcell told philly.com that apps "are a significant departure from search engines and Web browsers, but the basic needs apps meet are not revolutionary. ... While mobile apps are a fairly new approach to accessing online content," she said, "the main functions they fill for users are the same we've seen with previous technologies--namely, information-gathering and communication. ... The takeaway is that there are a lot of apps out there; only a handful have sticking power."

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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