As the Mobile Revolution Rolls On, There May Be No Room for New Apps

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

With over a million apps each in the Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Play Store and Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) App Store, it’s clear that the number of apps available is exponentially higher than the number of apps that can actually become popular. According to new data, users aren’t interacting with increasing numbers of apps as more and more become available. Instead, the number of apps that the average user interacts with in a month hasn’t changed much over the past few years.

A Nielsen study found that while we spend much more time using mobile apps than we did two years ago, the number of apps that we use hasn’t changed significantly. Nielsen’s data shows that Android and iPhone users spend 65 percent more time in mobile apps than they did two years ago. In the fourth-quarter of 2013, they spent 30 hours and 15 minutes interacting with apps each month, up significantly from the average of 18 hours and 18 minutes in the fourth-quarter of 2011.

However, the number of apps that users interact with hasn’t increased nearly as sharply. In the fourth-quarter of 2011, users interacted with an average of 23.2 apps in a month. That count rose to 26.5 in the fourth-quarter of 2012, to 26.8 in the fourth-quarter of 2013. Nielsen posits that, “This shows that while there may be an upper limit to the total number of apps users are willing to access within a given month, the amount of time they are spending on those apps is showing no signs of slowing down.”

That upper limit won’t affect the apps that are most users’ everyday necessities — like Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), Google, or the default email, messaging, and weather apps. However, it may pose a significant barrier to entrance for new apps trying to gain footing and build a user base. Nielsen also breaks out the number of apps and time spent with those apps by the age of the user. Smartphone owners ages 25 through 44 use the greatest number of apps per month (an average of 29) while users ages 18 through 24 spend the most time with those apps (averaging 37 hours and 6 minutes.)

Social media and search apps dominate the time that users spend in mobile apps, with the two categories accounting for an average of 11 hours of the time that users spend with apps each month. Entertainment, which includes video, audio, and gaming apps, saw growth of 71 percent over last year, as did each of the top app categories between 2012 and 2013. The photography category saw the biggest increase in time spent, with a 34-minute jump.

Neilsen’s findings are consistent with ComScore’s recent report on the most popular smartphone apps. Though Comscore’s results are for a later period — specifically April 2014 — they demonstrate the same trends displayed in Nielsen’s data. The most popular apps in order were: Facebook, Google Play, YouTube, Google Search, Pandora (NYSE:P) Radio, Gmail, Google Maps, Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) Stocks, Instagram, Facebook Messenger, Yahoo Weather Widget, Apple Maps, iTunes Radio/iCloud, Twitter (NYSE:TWTR), and The Weather Channel.

It’s interesting to note that Instagram, the most popular app from the photography category, which saw 131 percent growth from 2012 to 2013, appears in the mix with the most ubiquitous apps for Android and iOS. The service, owned by Facebook, is a perfect example — if not the originator — of the user behaviors that caused a significant increase in the time that smartphone owners spend in photography apps. Users take a photo, either with the phone’s default camera app or with one of a number of other apps. Then users process the photo, with either one or a series of apps to add filters, change coloring, create composite images, or collages. Then users open another app to share the photo, either on a photography focused app like Instagram, on a social network like Facebook, or even send it to someone else via an email app like Gmail.

There are apps springing up to offer users options at every point in that process. Led by Instagram, the photography category is capturing enough users to propel the category to the highest growth, among all categories of apps. Everywhere Android or iOS users look, there is a new app offering filters, panoramic images, collages, or images taken simultaneously with front and back-facing cameras.

Even on the desktop, photography tools are beginning to mimic the quick editing offered by mobile apps. Apple’s move to phase out Aperture and iPhoto for Mac OS X, and introduce a more limited “Photos” desktop app instead, represents a shift toward a more mobile-inspired mode of processing photos for its desktop platform. As 9to5Mac reports following a preview of the functionality, “the choice of editing tools mirrors what’s available in iOS 8.” 

By offering a streamlined editing process, Apple could be attempting to give users what they’re used to working with on their phones — quick editing tools that let them get in and out of the app quickly — but the changes choose to prioritize the needs of casual, Instagram-accustomed users over the needs of power users and professionals.

It’s worth noting that by sheer time spent with apps in the category, photography falls very far behind not only search, social, entertainment, and communication, but behind all other categories but finance. The fact that users still spend relatively little time in photography apps most likely means that, in parallel to the bigger trends in apps usage, users are spending more time interacting with photography apps, but may not be using a proportionately larger number of photography apps.

That would be good news for Instagram, but again, not such good news for new, smaller apps looking to break into the space. Or as Nielsen might put it, there just might be an “upper limit” on how much time people are going to spend taking, processing, and sharing photos. Google searches and Facebook statuses just might take priority in the time that users allocate to tapping and swiping at apps on their smartphones.

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