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Mobile apps losing their lustre?

Could the bloom be off of the mobile app rose?

While just-released survey data from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project suggests the app revolution may not be as revolutionary as Apple and Google would like us to believe, apps aren't going to disappear from our smartphones and tablets anytime soon.

The rapid transition from basic voice- and text-only feature phones to smartphones means more users are now capable of downloading and using apps.

About 42 per cent of adults in the U.S. now have phones with apps on them, almost double the 22 per cent recorded in September 2009. Despite the rising numbers, the majority of smartphone users — 68 per cent — tend to open five or fewer apps at least once a week. About 17 per cent don't use any apps at all.

HTML 5 a death knell for apps?

Part of the challenge facing app makers lies in the improving quality of mobile web sites. As designers adapt their sites to the growing numbers of users logging in from pocketable devices, their usefulness as a quick alternative to a downloaded app continues to grow. The increasing use of HTML5 in web design is further accelerating the trend, as the updated design standard allows websites to be nearly as interactive as a corresponding app. Increasingly capable mobile browsers add further fuel to the mobile web fire, resulting in large numbers of users choosing web surfing over app downloads.

A recent Zmags survey validates this evolution, with only 4 per cent of consumers choosing to use a branded app for shopping or browsing compared to 87 per cent who stick with a mobile or conventional browser.

Why do apps get less love from some users? An app makes more sense if you plan on connecting with a particular business frequently enough to justify taking the time to download the app in the first place. If you're addicted to Starbucks or Tim Hortons, for example, it's likely worth your while to have their respective apps on your device. But if you're searching the mobile web for a one-time purchase, an app for a particular retailer you're probably not going to visit again anytime soon, if at all, would be overkill.

That stickiness factor largely explains why so many apps fail to see the light of day. Anindya Datta, who founded the app analytic firm, Mobilewalla, estimates users eventually delete between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of the apps on their phones, adding a 30 per cent retention rate is considered desirable.

Less eyes on apps

The so-called long tail is also an influencing factor in app use. Despite online app stores stuffed with hundreds of thousands of titles, limitations in how the online repositories make new titles visible result in consumers seeing only a tiny fraction of what's out there.

An AppsFire analysis of iTunes App Store downloads showed 51.5 per cent of users installed the fifth-ranked app, while only 1.76 per cent installed the 1,000th-ranked title. A recent Nielsen survey reports Android users spend 43 per cent of their time using the top 10 apps in the Android Market — and 60 per cent of their mobile device time using the top 50 titles. This means most users never see much else, which largely explains why apps that fail to make the top 10, 25 or 50 lists often languish in the dusty corners of their respective online marketplaces.

The smartphone tipping point is also a factor as the Nielsen data shows 57 per cent of U.S. consumers still use basic feature phones. As more consumers ditch their old devices for smartphones, app awareness and usage will rise. Education level is another issue, as relatively recent smartphone purchasers may not be fully aware of how apps can change the user experience. Exploding demand for tablets will also drive usage levels up, as there is strong correlation between smartphone and tablet demand, especially among consumers who own both.

Despite the conflicting numbers over how many apps are downloaded, used and ultimately retained by end users — and challenges facing app store vendors in helping developers market less-popular titles — the space will continue to grow as more smartphones are sold and as consumers continue to learn how they can enhance the ownership experience.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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