Smartphones are magical little computer boxes, capable of things both high tech and useful and yet the number one most popular thing people do with their amazing smartphones' technology is... Check the weather. That's according to a Online Publishers Association survey (via AllThingsD's Peter Kafka), which finds that 90 percent of respondents use their phones to "access information." That makes sense because it is something smartphones are particularly good at over their counterparts (dumbphones), and when broken down, the most popular type of information to get is a weather report, as that chart to the right shows. That gives a pretty sad portrayal of the way technology has changed our lives. It's not that the weather isn't something useful to look up, but compared to all the other incredible things phones can do—there are over 500,000 apps in Apple's store!—it is one of the least impressive.
All Internet weather predictors get their information from the same place, the National Weather Service, so it's not as if smartphone technology has improved the accuracy of forecasts or the speed of delivery. And, frankly, that information isn't all that accurate. Looking at television weather forecasts, J.D. Eggleston writing for the Freakonomics blog found that the NWS was right 77 percent of the time. Another study found that the NWS was the least accurate compared to other meteorological services.
Of course, smartphone weather apps do more than just spit out highs and lows. The Weather Channel, a favorite app in the iPhone app store, has radar maps and videos and news. But, compared to other information giving apps, weather ones don't offer that much. The New York Times app, for example, often updates with new news and things to read. A video watching resource has diversity. But, the native iPhone app just gives numbers and some explanatory graphics. And, on the most basic level, that's what we go to it for. And that information is only so useful for so long.
Besides, we can also look out the window in the morning to get a sense of the day's meteorological aura, which has its merits over a phone. It helps us pick out the most appropriate outfit. Maybe we'll throw an umbrella in our bag. But, as the day goes on and as we get more mobile, our mobile phone weather apps lose their utility. Once you're out, you can't retroactively put on rain proof shoes. You could buy an umbrella, but why would you do that before a storm? Preparing with layers in the morning is the best thing one can do, which again, happens when we are at home and doesn't require a phone. To be sure, not all weather checking happens day-of. Sometimes we check the future days forecast to see if something out of our control will ruin our beach weekend. But, the farther out the forecast, the less accurate it becomes. (Meteorologists told Eggelston they could only really predict three days ahead.) And, the iPhone app only gives hour by hour data for the next 24 hours.
So, then, why do we love our weather apps so much? There is something about knowing the weather that is comforting. Wolfgang Carver, a 15-year-old weather aficionado put it well to Vice: "It always makes me feel safe because... if I don’t listen to it, how will I know what’s going to happen?" he told his mother, Lisa Carver when asked "What does weather mean to you?" There are very few instances in which we can know a little bit about what the future will be like. Weather is one of those things where someone can predict what's to come and be right. Having that kind of stability about the scary unknown is nice. That alone may be worth the high cost of a smartphone.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.