An over-abundance of apps isn't the same as app burnout

By Nathaniel Mott , written on February 18, 2013

From The News Desk

Less than half of the people who download an app launch it more than once, according to new estimates from Onavo, a company that allows mobile users to monitor their data usage. This fact prompted questions of whether consumers suffer from mobile app burnout, tired of the “Angry Birds” knock-offs or weather apps. You can imagine the Onion headline now: "Smartphone owner, tired of holding the wonders of the universe in his pocket, refuses to download another app."

But the ability to download an app and then never use it, along with the ability to save that app "just in case," is good for consumers. Or, put another way: Having a lot of apps doesn't mean we don't want more.

Here's why: The App Store — or Play Store, Windows Marketplace, — is a wonderment of apps that serve every niche or desire just waiting to be downloaded. Many of these apps are free, costing little more than a few megabytes of data and a few moments to download. It’s only natural for consumers to download an app on a whim, give it a go, and then choose to either delete it outright or stick it in some folder to collect virtual dust.

iOS in particular benefits from this “download it and decide if it’s worth it later” approach to software downloads. The App Store is one of the iPhone’s stand-out features, as it allows Apple to use third-party applications to create a “lock-in” effect. If a user finds an app that they feel they can’t live without they’re less likely to switch to another mobile ecosystem — free, uninhibited downloads facilitate that process.

It might be beneficial, in this case, to think of apps as a form of content. If people borrowing a book from a library and only reading it once, would that book be considered a failure? Probably not.

The same goes for Onavo’s other estimate, that only about 1,000 applications have at least 50,000 users in the United States. Given the latest announcement from Apple stating that there are more than 775,000 apps in the App Store, that would mean that some 774,000 apps have less than 50,000 users. By a startup’s standards those numbers are poor — it’s all about scale, scale, scale when it comes to software — but any other form of content produced by a small team and released into a crowded store would consider an audience of 1,000 to be more than enough.

And who would begrudge someone keeping a book that they almost never read? That’s the entire point of a personal library, after all — to keep books around for when you want them, even if you only want them every once in a while. I don’t believe that a library of applications is so different.

It’s easy to treat the App Store (and, again, its equivalents on other platforms) as a numbers game. That’s why people like Apple’s Phil Schiller or Microsoft’s Joe Belifore stand on stage and thump their chests while talking about the size of their marketplaces (which is not a euphemism), or why companies announce that they passed “X” number of users in “X” days. App distribution is a business for them, and they treat it like such.

But for the end users, the people who download and use — or don’t use, as the case may be — those apps, downloading an app is an entirely different experience. It’s about finding the right tool to get the job done, about finding a new game to kill time at the bus stop or to present to their children. It’s about being able to experiment with software without worrying so much about security or cost — something they couldn’t do just a few years ago.

Some apps are going to be downloaded and then deleted after the first launch. Others might go unused for days, weeks, or months at a time. But I’d count the fact that people are even able to download, use, and neglect those apps in the first place as a “win,” even if a few of us take it too far and get tired of the whole thing.