Martin: How often do users really use apps?

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Josh Martin

      Josh Martin

Recently, Nokia provided me with a Lumia 800 to test. It was the first time in years I had used a Nokia device, and the first time ever I had used the Windows Phone platform (my review of the platform/device can be found here). Once I opened the device I immediately began using it (foregoing the suggested initial charge because I am quite the rebel). After getting various accounts set-up and connected I decided to start downloading apps. As a long time iPhone user I have many apps--nearly 150 (yes, really--I was surprised, too) on my phone at present. I rely on a number of these apps and have a multitude of others, which would be gathering dust if they were physical goods.

So, as I began evaluating the Windows Phone Marketplace and finding apps, I thought it would be interesting to evaluate how many apps on my iPhone I actually use regularly and how many of those were available on Windows Phone. For the purpose of my research, I expanded my search to BlackBerry and Android as well. We often think that the switching cost from one platform to another is very high and that because Apple has 500,000+ apps there is no way other storefronts can compete. What I discovered surprised me and may come as a surprise to you too.

Types of apps
First, I decided to evaluate how frequently I used the various applications on my phone. There were 30 apps that I listed as frequently used--which in my opinion is an app I use a few times a month. Only 3 of these were games--Words with Friends, Tiger Woods and HR Battle 2.

The second dimension I chose to review my apps through was their criticality to me. So, of the 30 apps that I use frequently only 23 apps were critical and a few others that I use less frequently were deemed critical as well. The results are that of my 150 apps only 15 percent were truly essential to me. It seems that switching to another platform might be easier than I thought. A more thorough breakdown of the apps can be found in the table below and in the appendix to this article.

app usage

Apps that were nice to have fell into a variety of categories but ultimately they broke down in the following way--cool but not regularly used. Some apps make me feel smart, such as SkyView which is an awesome app (seriously, go download it). Others make me feel cultured such as MoMA or Louvre, despite only opening these beautiful apps once. These apps are great but they would not force me to remain on iPhone.

Other apps fell into essential categories such as music streaming, movie times and music tagging. As long as there is one app in this area (or even a mobile website) I am satisfied. Pandora is an app I like to use but I also have Slacker and Spotify as alternatives. Soundhound is great for finding out information about songs but so is Shazam. Yes, there are nuances between these applications. Some users surely have strong preferences, but I do not.

The wide breadth of apps available on iPhone is comforting. You know there is something to meet your every need. Further, I am certain most new apps appear on iPhone before any other platform. But Windows Phone (I never thought I would ever write that sentence in a million years) offered a differentiated experience I liked enough to forgo the comforts. Others may find similar qualities in BlackBerry, Android, Bada, etc. Then the question is, "Are there enough apps that individuals use regularly to make the switch?" The breakdown is below:

app usage

Click here to zoom in on this chart.

So, while I am enjoying my Windows Phone, the fact that there is no Instapaper, Mint.com, Skype (seriously?!) or Words with Friends is frustrating--so much so that I may decide iPhone is still the device for me. But, with 71 percent of the apps I use regularly and developer support for the platform growing, according to our recent developer survey, I expect many of those apps will be available soon.

The truth is that many of the apps that fall into the secondary categories could be had online. Do I need a Zappos app when I could easily go to their website and order shoes? Probably not, but it's nice to have--even if I've never used it. Same for ESPN. For me, it's clear that switching platforms wouldn't be as painful as I suspected.

Even the cost to switch wouldn't be terribly high for someone who has bought many apps over the years. Of all my critical apps, only five were paid. And, while I paid a handsome sum for Navigon, most platforms offer free turn-by-turn maps. So, switching would cost me less than $25. The whole experience has been enlightening for me and I believe it has broad implications for the market in general.

What does this mean for developers?
This information demonstrates opportunity. If I am a somewhat regular Pandora user today but switch to a platform that doesn't have Pandora, it is an opportunity for Slacker or Last.fm to win me as a user. This could be a huge boon because if a user becomes familiar with a service and begins using it there may be less need to switch to a previously used alternative if it becomes available. So, there is the first mover advantage.

Leverage the platform to its fullest. Windows Phone is a different animal than iPhone. Its live tiles display pertinent information, and while some apps take advantage of these features, a number of apps do not. So, another way to differentiate a platform and to stand out against existing competition is to leverage an OS to the hilt.

Try to be cost competitive. Some of the apps I have purchased on iPhone, such as Angry Birds, were 99 cents. These same apps cost as much as $2.99 for Windows Phone and are free in the Android Market. Knowing the market is essential to success.

Josh Martin is the director of Apps Research at Strategy Analytics.