It’s tough to remember an iPhone without third-party apps, but sure enough, the ability to download from the App Store didn’t arrive until iOS 2.0 in the summer of 2008. Though the iPhone 3G wasn’t nearly the global phenomenon that the iPhone brand as a whole is today, it was still quite clear that what Apple had just opened was the modern-day gold rush. Curious users flocked to the App Store on a daily basis — back in my time at Engadget, a few editors even pored through every single app release on a given day to see what was worth downloading. Now, with thousands being published every 24 hours, that same tactic is simply untenable.
Just over six years after its launch, the App Store is home to over 1.2 million applications. Meanwhile, the Google Play Store, Windows Phone Marketplace, Amazon Appstore, and a few others have provided homes for even more mobile software. Even if we’re looking solely at Apple’s App Store, we’ve seen an average of 200,000 programs — or around 550 per day, including weekends and holidays — become available. Granted, not each of them are of the highest quality, but it’s a startling example of what can happen when you commoditize something. Suddenly, practically overnight, it became very wise to understand coding as it pertains to building apps.
And almost as quickly as that gold rush came, it’s going.
ComScore, a leading industry analytics group, has just published its latest mobile app report. In it, we’re shown that for the three-month average ending June 2014, two-thirds of US smartphone users downloaded zero apps per month. Not zero paid apps; zero total apps. Most of the other one-third download between 1 and 7 apps per month, while there’s only a fraction of smartphone users that still download 8+ apps per month in the year 2014. (If I’m honest, most of that group are probably gadget reviewers who need to re-install programs on new devices to do their jobs.)
So, what’s this all mean? Despite smartphone sales as a whole continuing to surge, app downloads aren’t following the same trajectory.
To me, this nugget is the most fascinating of all. One may assume that early smartphone adopters went through a honeymoon phase where they’d download dozens upon dozens of apps in a bid to separate the wheat from the chaff. After that, once their app palate was fairly set, the new downloads would slow. But what these numbers show is that even new smartphone adopters — folks only coming into the fold today — aren’t interested in trial-and-error.
My own personal experience confirms this. Earlier this year, I purchased an iPhone 5s for my mother, who was still using a RAZR V3 from eons ago. At long last, we could finally iMessage each other. While I expected her to be blown away by the upgrade, and to see her curiosity drive all sorts of exploration in the App Store, the reality was starkly different. Instead, she confessed to being overwhelmed by the thought of having to populate a new phone with software, and simply asked me to “put the apps that I need on there.”
So, I did. Google Maps, Facebook, a tip calculator, Skype, Weather Underground, and a couple of others that even I can’t remember. And that was it. Apple’s built-in app collection took care of her other basic needs, from Mail to Camera to Safari to Messages.
In my estimation, the dwindling in app discovery is likely due to two events. For starters, those most likely to dig deep into an app store and explore have already done so years back, and now simply follow the news to sort out when there’s a breakthrough app (Secret, Humin, and others of their ilk) worth downloading. These folks are also most likely to be completely satisfied with the total functionality of their phone, and don’t wake up itching to find one specific app to fill one specific void. Practically every void that needed filled has already been filled. MG Siegler realized earlier this year that he wasn’t going beyond the apps already on his home screen, and forced himself to swap in a new app every so often just to see if continual exploration still held promise.
The second event is the same that happens when any market matures. In the auto industry, those looking to discover their new car don’t devote weeks of time to test drive everything (akin to downloading a hundred apps and deleting 80 percent of them). They just ask people what to buy. Maybe they’ll ping a friend, or maybe they’ll lean on a trusted reviewer. This exact same thing is happening to apps. Just as my mother did, those who are adopting smartphones now assume that they can save oodles of time by asking older smartphone owners which apps are must-haves. The Internet is chock full of “Top 10 app” lists for every category you can think of. The only reason to explore at this point is if you think you’ll uncover something that millions of others haven’t already uncovered over the past six years.
This isn’t a death knell for the app store. The PC app market matured well before 2008, and Microsoft Office still seems to be selling quite well. But it will make it more difficult for programmers. App stores far and wide haven’t figured out a great way to help new users discover apps that matter to them, and with hundreds or thousands of new programs being published each day, cutting through and gaining any significant download steam is infinitely more difficult today than it was in 2008, 2009, or even 2010. And, as this latest report shows, you’re now dealing with apathy and indifference as people stop rummaging for the next big app.