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The untold "app gap" story, Part I: Human behavior, the overlooked variable

The app gap, as we know, is the issue most blamed for Windows Phone's market woes. We often read articles and comments that assert and reassert the advantages the vast repository of apps available for the iPhone and Android phones provide those platforms. The fact that Windows phone has a comparatively much smaller app catalog, of approximately 500,000 apps compared to its competitors 1.5 million, leads many to presume that this disparity invariably leads to a subpar smartphone experience for the average smartphone user who chooses Windows phone.

What is often overlooked is the human behavior factor that drives the smartphone-app-experience story.

Despite the undeniable quantity and limited quality app disparity between Windows Phone apps and those of the leading platforms, however, the app gap story is much bigger than the abridged tale that is usually presented by other writers and commenters. Most of the dialog on this subject focuses solely on the empirical data of the size of competing app stores. What is often overlooked is the human behavior factor that drives the smartphone-app-experience story.

Ignoring this critical human behavior factor is like trying to tell a story without including the characters that drive the plot. Sure you have the setting but how is the environment engaged? And at what points are different aspects of the environment interacted with and how frequently? How does the environment drive character development? Though the setting is an important and vital part of a story, its role is to help the reader better understand the characters. The character is the focus.

Many who have narrated the "app gap story" have placed the focus on the setting: the size (or lack thereof) of the mobile platform's app stores. However, it is we, the smartphone users, who are the characters and therefore the legitimate focus of the story. In this series, we will look at the 2015 US Mobile App Report to present an analysis of the human behavior variable of the app gap story. This first piece is an introduction of that analysis and a prelude to a much deeper dive into the data that will follow in parts II and III.

I realize that the demographic focused on in this report excludes a global audience. So it cannot be definitively asserted by the data that this analysis applies to all smartphone users. That said it is reasonable to conclude many aspects of human behavior in relation to app engagement are consistent across varying demographics.

Putting all of our ducks in a row

Microsoft's struggling mobile platform is in a precarious position. After five years of going head to head with Apple and Google the platform has never received wide-spread consumer adoption. To rectify its mobile platform's less than stellar market position, Microsoft has embarked upon a comprehensive ecosystem-building strategy. In "Windows Phone isn't dead" we talked about Microsoft's plans to maintain and grow its mobile platform during a period of retrenchment. Through nourishing the ecosystem, building partnerships and developing tools and a platform for app porting and development Microsoft is proving a dedication to the full breadth of Windows including "phone."

In the words of Microsoft's Windows Chief Terry Meyerson, "We're going to do some cool things with phone."

Despite strategically expected shrinking market share and the waning faith of some of the Windows Phone faithful and others in the industry, Myerson's words indeed sound promising. In fact, Myerson's allusion to the future of Windows "phone" presented a great segue between the conclusion of the "Windows Phone isn't dead series" and the "Smartphone is dead series".

By the end of "Windows Phone isn't dead", we were positioned to view the broader smartphone industry and the transition that is challenging its phone-focused paradigm. We posited in "Smartphones are dead" that Microsoft's mobile strategy arguably positions Redmond to take advantage of that shift in a way competitors cannot.

The ultra-mobile PC analysis is often challenged with, "But Windows Phone has no apps."

As users and developers demand more PC-like power and capabilities from their smartphones Microsoft's Universal Windows Platform and context conforming OS and device strategy, culminating in an ultra-mobile PC seems to be the natural evolution of the smartphone and natural solution to the declining PC market. Of course all of the ultra-mobile PC, smartphone evolution talk is often challenged with the classic and almost knee-jerk response, "But Windows Phone has no apps".

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The presumed logical conclusion of that succinct surmising is that the persistence of that particular shortcoming will result in the continuance of Microsoft's failing attempts with "phone" despite any shifts in the industry or innovation Redmond brings to market.

Whether the app Bridges and Windows as a platform for mobile development will succeed is yet to be seen.

As we've shared in Windows Phone isn't dead part VI: App Gap? Microsoft has a platform for that, Redmond has a plan to shift its app misfortunes to its favor. Whether the app Bridges and courting developers by making Windows a platform for mobile development with the integration of Xamarin will succeed or fail is yet to be seen. The ambitious AI and bot framework (opens in new tab) strategy that complements those "more established" efforts also presents a light at the end of the "app gap" tunnel. Microsoft is without a doubt pulling out all of the stops to ensure developer support for Windows of which "phone" is a part. Satya Nadella said it this way{.nofollow}:

"I am committed to our first-party devices including phones. However, we need to focus our phone efforts in the near term while driving reinvention. We are moving from a strategy to grow a standalone phone business to a strategy to grow and create a vibrant Windows ecosystem that includes our first-party device family."

We've spoken in depth about Microsoft's Window Phone retrenchment strategy. We've also talked about the firm's ambitious strategy to resolve the "app gap" problem. In this series, we will take the road less traveled and consider human behavior in relation to apps and challenge the very "existence" of the app gap. Or to be more precise, the presumed impact it has on Windows Phone as a viable consumer platform. Uh oh. I'm in for it now. Well, the dye is cast. Let's go.

Is there an app for that?

Of course, there's an app gap, right? Apple and Google both tout more than 1.5 million apps in their respective app stores after all. Microsoft's Windows Store is about one-third that size. Of course, we know this because the media constantly reminds readers and viewers of the disparity between the market leaders and Microsoft. Admittedly it would be foolish to ignore the adverse effects of missing popular apps and the low quality of some others. It would also be foolish to ignore the negative effects of the consistently partial reporting of the tech media who tell only a part of the "app gap" story.

The size of the app stores doesn't tell the all-important human-app interaction/engagement part of the story.

The focus on the size of the app stores and the less than ideal developer support for Windows does not tell the all-important human-app interaction/engagement part of the story. Apps are designed to help humans get things done. Therefore, ignoring how we as humans use apps, what apps we are using to get things done and even how we engage app stores (or not) to find apps to get things done ignores a critical measure of the app story: human behavior in relation to apps. This human behavior aspect is arguably the story that needs to be told, or at least consistently incorporated in the oft-echoed "app gap" story.

Since most conclude that the app gap, which has both a numeric and quality component, is a critical deficit to the Windows ecosystem, a reasonable conclusion is that iPhone and Android users frequently avail themselves of their platforms much praised and exceedingly abundant resource.

Surely the average user must be devoting copious amounts of time perusing the rich content of their respective app stores. They surely must be downloading a myriad assortment of apps every month from the hundreds of thousands of apps available to them. And it is certain that the average user spends the overwhelming percentage of their app time engaging with a presumed vast and diverse portfolio of apps they've downloaded to their smartphones.

If you are an average U.S. smartphone user (if you're reading this you're likely a tech enthusiast and not an average user), and this doesn't sound like you, you are not alone. The data from the 2015 U.S. Mobile App Report reveals that most US smartphone users spend 50% of their smartphone app time in just one app.

The same report also reveals that the average user does not spend a lot of time searching the app stores or downloading a multitude of apps. Thus, the app gap though real in a numeric and quality sense is less impactful to the average user when we incorporate the data of human behavior in relation to apps into the equation. Yes, I know many of you may be ready to rip off into the comments to share your anecdotal experiences. Before you do that, keep reading.

We're such social creatures

Let's get this out of the way first. It is true that there are indeed apps missing from the Windows Mobile platform that are present on iOS and Android. Furthermore, relative to their iOS and Android counterparts, some apps that are on Windows Mobile are of lesser quality. Anecdotally, both missing and poor quality apps have negatively affected the smartphone experiences of some users. To deny these facts would be both unrealistic and dishonest.

Some of the apps users miss on Windows are social apps like Snapchat, some banking apps like the soon to return Bank of America app, and habitual behavior apps like the Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks apps that some smartphone users use daily. Handy deal finding shopping apps like Walmart or Kohls are also among the missing. As stated earlier, it is a fact that the absence of some of these apps from Windows adversely affects the experience of some users. However, the impact of the effect of these missing apps on those who find their absence problematic varies.

Users like myself who lamented the loss of my very useful banking app finds the void it left both a disappointment and a very real inconvenience. However, though I used the app regularly, most of the activity I spend on my device was not on my banking app. Like most users, based on the information from the 2015 US Mobile App Report, most app-based smartphone usage is spent in social apps, particularly Facebook. And, of course, Facebook is available on Windows Mobile. Furthermore, Facebook dominates not only the social networking category of mobile phone app usage, but all mobile app usage as we will delve into further in Part II.

Users like myself find the void both a disappointment and an inconvenience.

So though it is an inconvenience when I'd like to use the banking app rather than the website I'm now forced to use, its absence has little effect on my most frequent smartphone app usage. In fact, the "app gaps" effect, though a real and a definite inconvenience at times, has little real effect on my dominant smartphone app usage.

Though my experience has no bearing on that of others, my personal app usage experience seems consistent with the majority of US smartphone users. That being that our dominant smartphone app usage conflicts with the sense that the "app gap" dramatically impairs or can impair the average smartphone user's general smartphone experience. That notion is simply not borne out in the data of this 2015 US smartphone app report.

As we will see in further detail in Part II virtually all of the most used smartphone apps such as Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Spotify, Pandora and others are available on Windows Phone. Simply put, the manner in which the average smartphone users uses apps does not necessarily greatly benefit from hugely robust app stores.

Remember, 50% of the average users smartphone app time is spent in their top app, which statistically speaking is Facebook. And believe it or not less than 10 apps dominate the average users smartphone app usage time.

My personal app usage experience seems consistent with the majority of US smartphone users.

Now I am sure that the comment section will be populated with anecdotal experiences of how the app gap has hampered some reader's personal experiences. Again, before you type angrily away, please note my acknowledgment of negative experiences due to missing apps in particular categories including my own experience with a missing banking app. However, according to Comscore's 2015 US Mobile App Report 50% of all app time spent on a smartphone occurs in an individual's single most used app. Quite, literally one app on a US smartphone user's phone dominates half of their smartphone app time.

1.5 million available apps does not tell us how most users, are using what apps, most of the time.

Hearing about the 1.5 million apps in Apple's and Google's app stores contrasted with Microsoft's nearly 500,000 is a valid data point that reflects developer support or lack thereof for the platforms. It also conveys the assurance that if there is an app a user wants on the iPhone or an Android smartphone it will likely be available. The opposite is sometimes the case for Windows Mobile. This data does not, however, tell us how most users are using what apps, most of the time. It is the answers to those questions that give a broader view of the true impact of, or even based on practical application, the existence of, "the app gap."

We're just getting started

It has become almost customary to end an assessment of Microsoft's mobile efforts with an indictment against the platform by mentioning the notorious "app gap". Posts in article's comment sections, and tweets are also popular forums to share one's concerns, complaints or sometimes ill-intended criticisms about the "app gap" and its effect's on the fate of Windows Phone.

The app gap as a numeric disparity between the app stores of Apple and Google and Windows is indeed real and quantifiable. The quality disparity of some apps is also measurable and observable. Both of these issues are being addressed. That said, human behavior indeed affects which apps we use and how we use them. This fact challenges the assertion that the quantity and quality app disparity that exists between Windows Mobile and its rivals invariably leads to a subpar or, as many have advocated, better avoided smartphone experience on Windows Phone. Of course, there are other concerns many have voiced about the user experience on Windows Phone that are related to the OS or other factors. Here we are focused on the presumed disastrous effects of the "app gap."

That said, the data have revealed that the average US smartphone user spends 50% of their "app time" in just one app. We've also seen that the average users time is devoted primarily to using social media.

In this piece, we touched on some of the data from the 2015 US Mobile App Report, but we've merely scratched the surface of this important topic. This piece was simply the prelude for a much deeper dive into the data that supports the analysis that human behavior in relation to apps, in essence, precludes the existence of an "app gap"; or at least negates the assumption that its impact makes Windows Phone a non-viable consumer platform.

In part two we will see how most users, are using what apps, most of the time and how Windows Phone fits in that picture.

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

189 Comments
  • Thanks for reading once again folks! Sorry for the hiatus. I had multiple deaths in my family within a few weeks time. Anyway this series will continue to look at the "App Gap" that has so plagued Windows Phone! Naturally missing apps and lesser quality apps has an undeniable affect on some users as well as a broader general perception issue of the platform. But as we we continue to see in this series the real practical effects on the average smartphone user based upon human behavior and what apps are used most of the time and what apps are available on Windows Phone challenges the assertions that many make about the impact of the app gap for the average smartphone user. Well you know the drill, LET'S TALK!!!
  • Jason, Thanks for the well written articles. You are one of my favorite editors! Now, I am an avid Android user who hasn't used any other mobile platform. I will readily admit that the "app gap" is a big issue for me. But, what I see Microsoft doing with W10M, it has my attention. In fact, as soon as W10M plays nicely with my SP3 (much like iPhones and Macs do) that is when I will purchase a Windows phone and try it out. I think features like this will help lessen the blow of the "app gap" problem because it will make the platform more attractive as a whole. Just my 2 cents... Posted with the Nexus 6, Nexus 5, or Surface Pro 3
  • Thanks for the input and the support. I'm just a contributer by the way not one of the editors. :-) Glad you enjoyed this piece. Hope you do try do try WP, and when you do please share your experience! -------------------------------
    Jason L Ward @JLTechWord
  • I love your articles, not because of the articles but because I can enjoy doom and gloom kids spamming the comments section. I mean, you write good balanced articles with a lot of reasoning in them, that's what makes the childish comments that follow everytime so funny. Grabbing popcorns, 3,2,1....go!
  • Haha same here Paolo :D
  • @Paolo and Sumair thanks for the support guys! -------------------------------
    Jason L Ward @JLTechWord
  • Jason... Let's revisit WP, and a General poor marketing strategy, from the beginning in 2010, in a future article..
    ......
    For years I've been saying that that has been a severe issue holding WP back, and I know you believe so as well.. Just please do it for me. Lol.
    But, Seriously.
  • Agreed @rodneyej..  The marketing strategy was never a priority on Microsoft's top shelf for things to do. But I believe this is because of the crazy hurdles that kept WP from becoming a real player to date. From the agressive push Nokia took with making their phones become not only a Microsoft Partner but (IMO), to the shegrin of Microsoft and its other Partners, becoming 'The Partner' for phone devices, which isn't what Microsoft really wanted. Then there was the OS shift from 7 to 8, a major change at the time (to start the path to what we have now and that is UWA), changes in CEO of Microsoft and the paradigm shift that came with that, and then the purchase of Nokia's phone division, another huge hurdle (again IMO) to control and reduce the significance of Nokia to make way for other partners to come onboard. Now we have Windows 10, its ecosystem that is a massive undertaking and something that needs its foundation sound before building on top of it. And I believe MS want to get the Anniversary Redstone out for the benefit of all the devices it runs on with Core to then push this ecosystem right. This is where I see Microsoft gearing up its marketing and start to really promote its long term strategies with all the pieces finally aligning for them. For us consumers we rarely get to see the big picture when it comes the 5 or 10 yr plan for a company and if we do see anything of it it will be just a glimpse. But it is clear Microsoft is moving toward a goal.    
  • Good points!
  • Even a Mimi editorial covering marketing would be nice.. It really is a big issue, and needs to be addressed.
  • Hi Rodney I hear you! I haven't written a piece on that yet though my wife and I have talked about it quite a bit.
    We do know at this point they won't market anything until all thier ducks are in a row.
    In the past there was some marketing like the ATT 920, ATT 1020, and Verizon 928 Ads, but nothing on the caliber of what we see from Apple and Samsung who are on every major carrier. One if the things Chris Capossela, MS Chief Marketing Officer pointed out is the marketing built into the products, which is very important. Check out(which I'm sure you have) part 3 of my "Highs and Lows Microsoft's Smartphone Strategy: Rules of Engagement; Business Unusual": https://doc.co/GTX682 Apple and Google(Samsung) are great at that AS WELL the in the "consumers face, touch our emotions and senses" ads. MS can't really do that with phone right now. I think they could have done better in the past. Maybe I'll do a lil' something. :-) -------------------------------
    Jason L Ward @JLTechWord
  • While the article is great, goes into the root of the problem, and approaches it the way it should, I have to say it's useless (read on, I'll explain).
    ​The only people who will read the whole article, and think about it, and who have the brainpower to understand it, are the people who actually understand what the app gap is, and they shouldn't even read the article, they already know most of the stuff.
    While the other people who SHOULD read the article, they
    -will not even be on this site
    -will not bother reading an article of this length
    -will not understand it
    As a proof of this, just look at the comment bellow. 'Screw you and your well written article, I know the best what's going on - WP IS DEAD AND SUCKS AND HAS NO APPS!!11! Android-powah!'
    Why even bother trying to educate mindless fanboys or some "tech-writers" who barely know how to hold a phone, let alone something else? The moment I realised what the app-gap is, is when people started crying about Snapchat. At that moment, you realise that those "people" are actually 15 year old kids who just want the newest (*cough* dumbest *cough*) trend. And I'm sorry to be the guy, but Windows is not the platform for that, nor will it ever be.             
  • Yeah, but I "read" to support the work (mainly just skimmed this one or used the Summary Bot in Skype)...like it's cool to know exactly what Jason thinks v. what the peanut gallery has to say, but he wants a peanut gallery because at least its an audience lol =p I do what I want... =p
    Windows 10 RULZZ yer FACE!!!
  • But trends are what the MAJORITY of people follow. Whether it be music, fashion, apps. So unless Windows mobile can get apps released at the same time as the other OS's, it will never gain market share. By the time Windows gets an app often the trend has died and the company is trying to make some extra cash off the little guy it ignored in the first place.
  • Correct. MS can't be successful if they think like this guy, and accept the fact that it's ok to ignore a demographic.
    .....
    WINDOWS 10 is for EVERYONE EVERYWHERE ON EVERY TYPE OF DEVICE, so it must have software for all kinds of taste, and situations... Even popular, and fad, apps.
  • While I agree with a lot you say I highly DISAGREE with your fact that Windows SHOULD NOT have app parity with the other platforms. That's the biggest copout for Windows not having apps that I ever heard.
    .....
    Actually, while you where in the process of trying to explain how others don't perceive the app gap properly you just proved how unaware, and out of touch, of the situation you yourself actually are. The end of you comment went south.
  • I'm not saying Windows shouldn't have apps. I'm just saying it's not a priority (especially when thosee "apps" are useless passing trends). Remember Vine? We cried for a vine app, and now that thing is nearly dead. I mean, I still love Vine, but it didn't save WP, nor will Snapchat, nor any other app. Windows is good as a system, and it's not trying to get audience with some colorful apps. That's what I meant to say. Windows is so much more. The only apps that I really see as missing are bank apps (and PayPal since a few days ago). And even without them it's not the end of the world.
    ​I'm not out of touch, I'm just happy with what I have.
  • It's not a priority? No, it is most definitely a priority, and applications is what has driven Windows since day one.. The fact is that the idea of an application has changed, but the application, or program, is still critical.. Build is one of MS's BIGGEST and most important events of the year... You have the story backwards. Gaining app parity is MOST DEFINITELY MS'S IMMEDIATE PRIORITY! That is the ENTIRE reason for the way W10 has been executed for every device, and with UA's.. At this point it's all about apps, and this article is in no way trying to detour from that fact..
  • And, wait.. You only think we're missing banking apps, and the like?.. Wow! You really are oblivious the the REAL APP GAP, and I'm not talking about JUST numbers.. First of all your age might have something to do with it. No offense BTW, just an assessment. How old are you? And, I ask that because I could be wrong.. Millions of people need thousands of different work, school, community, consumer product related, and municipal apps alone (just to name a few)... All those airline employees, city employees, teachers, engineers, (the list goes on), have specific apps that their organizations require them to have. Yes, require! You have to enter the real world to understand just how many important apps windows is missing. I once meet a flight attendant that had to hit rid of her 1520 because it didn't have the critical to her job check-in app that is required for her to have.. That's just one of thousands of examples that keep people (some who are sad to give up on WP) going to other platforms... What about all those consumer product apps? Thousands! Do you have a later model Harley? A Mercedes? Do you own your own home? If you do own your own home does your community have a HOA?... Well, me, and millions do, and there's an app for all that! I've been missing out! Lol. Popular apps?? Those aren't anything in numbers. They are super critical, but don't even make up 5% of what people really want, and need. Most users here have no idea of what's available out there. Like I said, this article isn't here to explain how apps aren't critical, rather a lighter perspective on where WP actually sits... It's not the fact that a user needs 200 different apps, but the "app gap", in my eyes, is that with WP when you need that one app that's important it's virtually NEVER there.. But, you don't think it's a big deal, and you're satisfied. That's why I think you might not be into the real world yet, and possibly younger. No offense, because as the article states, everyone has different needs. But, it's not logical to ignore the fact that MS has spent billions, and apps have held them back.. That is a HUGE problem. That's their weakest link! Can you name anything else they struggle so much with?
  • I agree with you on that it's not the popular apps where windows phone is lacking its the niche apps that serve a specific purpose but are important to everyday life. Apps are meant to make life easier and more productive but if it's not available for your phone its not beneficial.
  • Yes, and I agree with Ma Rio's point about one app not making, or breaking the platform. Well, Facebook could, but that's besides the point... He's right that popular apps (by themselves) aren't critical in the long run.. That's true. It's those not so popular apps that make up the majority of iDroids catalog, and what makes their stores so helpful, compared to Windows.... But,, BUT!! Where not having popular apps can hurt you, especially in the long run, is never having them... I mean, so one specific app won't hurt this month, but not having next months app, and the one popular the month after that, and next, and next, for years hurts!.... We can't just claim to not have one popular app (like Snapchat).. The negative perception about the store, which MS struggles with, is the perpetual mental accumulation of not having popular apps at the given time.. So, actually we can say that it is important to have every popular app, when it's popular, along with the other platforms, and consistently....
    .................
    THERE'S JUST NO GETTING AROUND IT, NO MATTER WHAT TAKE YOU SPIN ON THE SITUATION... COMPANIES, AND INDEPENDENT DEVELOPERS ARE PUTTING APPS THAT PEOPLE NEED, AND WANT ON IDROID... IF THEY HAVE PUT 1.5 MILLION OF THOSE APPS ON IDROID, AND MS WANTS TO HAVE A PLATFORM THAT PEOPLE NEED, AND WANT, THEY MUST GET DEVELOPERS TO ADD THE VERY SAME 1.5 MILLION APPS ON WINDOWS. END OF STORY. THAT'S THE BOTTOM LINE.
  • People need apps for their local stores, parks, pharmacies, public transportation, coffee shops, banks, their DVR and home security systems and automobiles. And yes like Jason said, people spend most of their time on 1 or 3 apps, but not having the apps I listed above is a frustrating experience, and can make anyone regret their mobile phone choice if they can't get them. 
  • Correct.
  • Want not need. On a trip to USA earlier this month I installed around 8 apps for parks,  transportation, stores, attractions. Every single one of them was a waste of time. They didn't give me useful information or presented it in a way that made no sense, with illogical menus  such that I couldn't access that information on demand. I seriously regretted spending time trying to get useful information out of them. Mostly their Web sites were better,  but some of those were not mobile friendly. Yes there are some apps missing which is why I'm on Android. Could I use a windows phone and do without them? Yes,  they aren't needs. I tried it for a fortnight and didn't die. But I liked reading my RSS feeds on newsblur, having access to my bank,  setting programmes to record on my PVR, submitting my utilities readings. All but the PVR I could have done equally as well on a well designed Web page.
  • THIS! You nailed it down!
  • I agree. Missing Snapchat does not bother me as I do not use it. It would be a issue to my daughter's though who use it daily.
    However my Epson printer has an iOS app and an android app, but no Windows app. This does bother me. I can print office docs by sending to my printers email, but cannot print a web page or a photo, and cannot scan to my phone. It is the same for many other devices, they support iOS and android but not Windows. This is where Microsoft to step up their game, getting hardware manufacturers on-board. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • I concur Rodney