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".

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 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 Ward

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!