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Tablet apps: There’s lots of them out there, so why don’t I use them?

by Don Reisinger

January 12 2014

Don Reisinger is a New York-based technology journalist who writes for CNet, the LA Times and other publications.


I’m a self-professed tablet junkie. And as such, you might think that apps that can enhance the overall experience of using slates would fulfill me all the more. But you’d be wrong.

I’ve heard from friends and other technology journalists, alike, that third-party applications make or break a platform. Heck, I’ve even written in the past that it’s software that will help define a tablet and guarantee its success. That’s probably why Apple, Google, Amazon, and now Samsung, spend so much time trying to woo developers. It’s also why all of those companies tout their app-download figures.

And yet, here I sit, with several tablets to my name, and just a handful of applications that I actually use. You might say that I’m a serial downloader of apps, but I’m by no means a serial user.

It’s through that frame of reference that I often scoff at claims made by Apple and Google on how many apps have been downloaded from their stores. In October, Apple said that it has accumulated 60 billion downloads in its App Store – a massive figure that shows the popularity of both its products and software. But it doesn’t say anything about actual usage.

Flurry Analytics, a company that tracks app usage, recently revealed in a report that 80% of our time on iOS and Android devices is spent within apps. That amounts to about 2 hours and 7 minutes each day. Just 20% of our time is spent on the Web.

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App use by the numbers

Although that data might indicate I’m in the minority, further inspection reveals something rather interesting: most folks are spending precious little time on a bunch of apps. In fact, 18% of our time on mobile devices is dedicated to Facebook. Another 32% is made up entirely of games. Just 8% each goes to entertainment and utility.

Flurry also looked back at app launches on a daily basis. The company found that the average iOS or Android user launches just under 8 apps per day. That might sound like a lot, but consider this: another study by Statista that found the average mobile user downloads 26 apps. And back in 2012, Nielsen said the average number of apps running on a smartphone in the US was 41.


Regardless of the number we use, the data speaks for itself: while we might be more than willing to download applications and try them out a few times, most of us prefer to focus on just a handful of programs.

That data makes me feel a bit better about myself. From tablets to smartphones, I find that my desire to use third-party apps is significantly less than it is on the PC side. As of this writing, I have four pages worth of apps, including folders with several programs within them. And yet, I only use a few third-party apps from time to time.

Which, of course, brings us to another question: how important are third-party apps, anyway? Flurry’s data speaks in general terms about the category of apps people are using. Is it not possible that many of those programs – whether they’re included in the study or not – are either those bundled with operating systems or those apps that are built-in are replacing any third-party apps we’d normally be using?

The fact is that both Google and Apple have done a good job of delivering functionality to their devices. And although third-party apps can come in handy, for the basic tasks we want to complete with tablets each day, third-party programs are often unnecessary - specific vertical and specialty areas being a notable exception.

That’s precisely why Facebook and games are so popular on mobile devices. Tablets are designed to be utilities – products that help us do work, communicate with others, and surf the Web. The third-party apps have been plugging the holes to make the experience even better.

This is by no means an indictment of mobile developers or software development in general. But I think it’s important that we acknowledge that app downloads are not nearly as important as overall app usage. And it’s perhaps because many people find themselves downloading dozens of apps but using so few that we’re seeing a move towards picking more free apps over paid. Why invest in something that you’ll probably stop using before long?

So take a look at your iPad, Galaxy Note, Kindle Fire, or whatever else you’re using and see if the apps you’ve downloaded are still providing value. If they are, great. But I’m willing to guess that the vast majority of the programs on your slates are collecting digital dust.

Discovering great apps

Also, I should note that TabTimes recently-published Best 100 iPad apps is a great compilation of apps across several categories. (A Best 25 Android tablet apps list had been published earlier.) I’m not saying there isn’t value there, but if you’re like me, you’ll identify a bunch intriguing enough to at least download and of those perhaps a few you’ll actually use on a regular basis.

(BTW, if there’s an app you use that you think I absolutely need to try, give it a shout out in the comments section below this article. I'd appreciate it)

Don Reisinger is a New York-based technology journalist who writes for CNet, the LA Times and other publications.
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