What 44 Billion Mobile App Downloads by 2016 Means

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 (s hpq). 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 (s rimm) PlayBook, which has much to like in terms of interface, usability and design, but has few apps. HP (s hpq) 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 (s msft), 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!