How free apps are sucking the life out of smartphones

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Jason Ankenyeditor's corner

A growing number of mobile developers are banking on the freemium model to build a successful business, distributing their apps for free in hopes of making a buck on premium in-app transactions like virtual currency and virtual goods. In-app purchases are on pace to generate 64 percent of total mobile application revenues by 2015, up from 39 percent in 2011, according to data issued earlier this year by information and analysis provider IHS Screen Digest. The firm adds that in-app purchase revenues will rise to more than $5.6 billion in 2015, compared to $970 million a year ago.

Those are impressive numbers, but 2015 seems like it's a lifetime away. What can developers expect from freemium revenues in the here and now? Based on combined data from 2011 and the first few weeks of 2012, the average developer building freemium, non-game iOS apps targeting the U.S. market generates  $23,482.15 in the month after the app's launch per new data released by mobile app researcher Velositor. When iOS games are included in the equation, the figure rises to $63,885.14. But Velositor warns that the opportunity is far less lucrative north of the border: Freemium iOS apps targeting Canadian market yield an average of $4,226.71 in their first month of release, with games reaching $11,558.18.

The freemium model isn't the only game in town. Premium app sales remain a compelling strategy, as do free apps relying on mobile advertising revenues. But even free apps come with a price: A new study conducted by researchers at Purdue University reports that free Android and Windows Mobile apps displaying third-party ads consume a staggering amount of smartphone battery life, and in some cases can drain the device's power source in around just 90 minutes. Anywhere from 65 percent to 75 percent of the energy used by free apps is spent on downloading ads, uploading consumer data and user tracking, Purdue computer scientist Abhinav Pathak states. For example, only 20 percent of the energy consumed by the free version of Rovio Mobile's Angry Birds actually displays and runs the game--45 percent is devoted to finding and uploading the user's location with GPS, then downloading geo-appropriate ads over a 3G connection. New Scientist adds that the 3G connection stays open for around 10 seconds, even if data transmission is complete, and this "tail energy" accounts for another 28 percent of the app's battery consumption.

Pathak blames the energy leakage on inefficiencies in the third-party advertising and analytics code that developers integrate into their apps, adding that in the course of his team's research, apps were restructured to reduce their energy consumption by 20 percent to 65 percent. It's unknown whether the study will convince developers to restructure their business model and migrate from free apps to freemium apps, but it's certainly a shock to the system.--Jason