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Summary:

Think the mobile app economy is a passing fad? Not so, says ABI Research, as it expects 44 billion mobile app downloads by 2016. The trend towards task-based computing on the go is good for those already in the game, but a challenge to newcomers.

App Store

Think the mobile app economy is a passing fad? You might want to think again. ABI Research reported Thursday that an estimated 44 billion mobile applications will be downloaded within the next five years. By that time, the global population will be around 7 billion people, and while most of them won’t have a smartphone, the math works out to more than six mobile app downloads for every man, woman and child on the planet!

This rapid rise in mobile software is interesting to me for a few reasons. My first handheld device was purchased around the year 2000. It was a Compaq Aero 2130 handheld. Regardless of the recent spats over the term “app store,” I installed plenty of software on the device. I bought it for several reasons, but one was because of the future vision mobile devices would bring. Of course, that vision is coming to fruition now: More than half of all phones sold in the U.S. last quarter were smartphones, for the first time ever.

What I don’t remember from my Aero days, or from the many devices that followed, is how many apps I installed on the device. We simply didn’t care about tracking them, because so few people actually had devices that could install mobile apps in the first place. That essentially changed three years ago with Apple’s AppStore and subsequent competitors. Now we track how many apps are in a store, how many apps are on the average device, the engagement with them, and how many apps we will have downloaded by 2016.

This massive number of expected mobile app downloads also adds to a thought I had roughly a year ago in that there are two paradigm shifts going on right now. We’re in the midst of migrating many activities from desktop to mobile computing and also from heavy, full-featured software to task-based computing:

Apps such as Seesmic, FiOS Mobile and Remember the Milk allow me to connect with people, devices or data over the web. And they do so in a fashion that’s generally more pleasing to use than a mobile site. I could read or send tweets through the actual Twitter site, but I use an app for visual appeal and easier access to functionality, which means the software has transitioned my mobile web usage away from the browser. The same scenario applies to Remember the Milk, which I use to manage my tasks. There’s a mobile-friendly site available, but the RTM app is far more responsive and offers me a better user experience.

Essentially, these apps are bite-sized, functional chunks of the mobile web. The small bits of software are designed specifically for mobile use — often targeted for particular platforms — which brings a level of navigation and enjoyment not found in a browser.

This task-based approach, and the large demand for apps that support it, underscore the challenge that new devices faces when entering the market. Specifically, I’m thinking of Research In Motion’s PlayBook, which has much to like in terms of interface, usability and design, but has few apps. HP will face the same challenge with its TouchPad when it arrives in the next few months, as will any MeeGo devices, if they arrive at all. Building a great device that’s easy to use isn’t enough these days, nor will it be for the next several years. And although web apps can suffice in some cases, the promise of app-like features from HTML5 is still off in the distance.

The situation has the potential to be a double-whammy for Microsoft, because the company faces both of these challenges in terms of paradigm shift. The move from desktop to mobile hasn’t helped the Windows franchise, because you can’t cram a desktop user interface into to a mobile device. Again, I speak from experience, as I’ve purchased a handful of tablet PCs and 7-inch, ultra-mobile PCs. They only work for a subset of users at best. Task-based computing in small amounts isn’t what Microsoft is known for either; the Office franchise is an outstanding productivity suite, but it’s filled with functionality not suited for mobile activities. The company is on track with its Office products for Windows Phone 7, but there’s more work to be done.

Regardless of which companies are ready for the mobile app economy or not, I’m enjoying these shifts in device use and thinking. I still don’t know how many apps I’ve downloaded over the past 11 years, but it’s nice to see the rest of the world starting to catch up. Time to go download some more apps!

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  1. I use a Galaxy Tab. Though initially I was more inclined to use various applications available to do thing, I increasingly find myslef using the browser more than apps. I somehow cannot digest the idea that I can access only one service with one app.

    1. Kevin C. Tofel Sojo Friday, April 29, 2011

      As a fellow Galaxy Tab owner (we rock!) I’m the same: aside from a few key apps that I use daily, I’m in the browser more often. However, on the iPad, my percentage of app use is higher than on the Tab. For me, that represents the difference in the two app stores in terms of titles that are appealing or do what I need them to do. However, thanks to Amazon’s AppStore and improvements in the quality of apps in the Android Market, I’m thinking that my app use on the Tab is slowly on the rise. I should keep track for a month or two and revisit. Thx!

  2. Statspotting Friday, April 29, 2011

    I think the people to whom this matters the most are the gatekeepers of these apps, the app stores.

    Models might evolve, but the app store toll will remain in one form or another. They are the ones who stand to gain.

    1. Very true as all the app stores get their cut. But to some degree, this is creating a new economy for app developer too. Not all, of course, but the sheer number of devs that are now focusing on mobile apps as compared to a few years ago is quite large.

  3. I salute the article, but it seems to be off the mark on one important, but almost semantical issue.

    > We’re in the midst of migrating
    > many activities from desktop to mobile

    What we are doing is moving from Desktop-Space to APP-Space. That is much different than “Mobile Space”.

    Mobile space is about being ‘out’ in the world. APP-Space doesn’t care about location.

    Let’s be clear on this point, because our entire computing future is built on it: there is no MOBILE-SPACE – there is only APP-SPACE.

    There are no “smart phones”, there are only “APP Devices”. This is not a war between the desktop and the Phone/Pad. This is a war between APP-Space and the Web. Phones are just a battleground in that war.

    1. I understand your point, Brett, but I look it at it slightly differently. Mobile apps work well not just because they can be used anywhere, but because developers have moved away from the desktop UI paradigm. Had Microsoft done that with Windows in the past, UMPCs may have been successful. But that didn’t happen as desktop apps, and the UI that goes with them, were tried on mobile devices. And I agree with you about the mobile web as I expect it to bring a greater challenge apps in the future. In a sense, maybe it is a matter of semantics – your point is well taken!

  4. I can’t wait until more shopping apps become smarter. I know Retailigence is working on making that happen with their local product inventory, just need to get more apps on board! Right now, so many product searches come up incorrect.

    Also, once people realize how much good apps can do, more people will jump on board – just look at Japan, Haiti, etc.

  5. Interesting topic! But isn’t it a deja vu for MS? They will in similar situation in the PC/desktop market and stitched a deal with the largest hardware provider.

    Nokia = IBM of 1980s [for MS]??

  6. Superb observations. I completely agree.

  7. Tablet PC Info Friday, November 25, 2011

    What 44 Billion Mobile App Downloads by 2016 Means: Mobile Technology News « http://t.co/8if9Zj9S #tabletpc

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