The "app gap" isn't what you think it is

The "app gap" isn't what you think it is

Summary: It's easy to think of the app gap as "Platform X has more apps than Platform Y". It's much more subtle than that...

App Gap

We know that Windows Phone is often held up as having problems with the "app gap" -- a situation which describes a user being unable to get the apps that they want on their device.

But there's much more to this than just "Platform X has more apps than Platform Y." Windows Phone has most of the "popular" apps at this point, yet the perceived problem still persists.


One thing to accept with the app gap is that it will always exist.

For the sake of argument, you can assume that the effort required to target each platform is roughly the same. This is a slightly dangerous position to hold, as anyone who is smitten with their platform of choice will argue against it. For me, the rules of the universe in general are true here -- you don't get something from nothing, and you cannot magic an app out of the ether.

What this means is that if you have three platforms in a market, the one in last place will always be unloved. By definition, the lowest share must be 33 percent if you assume 33.5 percent each for the other two. If you assume that your development effort per platform is "x", then a "2x" expenditure will net you minimum coverage of 67 percent.

In reality, the Rule of Three tells us that market share for the top three placed generalists (Android, iOS, and Windows Phone) hover around 40 percent, 20 percent, and 10 percent respectively. It'll be slightly different in the smartphone market -- the Rule of Three leaves a lot of space in the market for specialised players, and the ecomonics of making smartphones is unfriendly to specialised.

So then, let's assume the third place player gets 20 percent, the other two get 40 percent and 35 percent, and specialists (BlackBerry? Blackphone?) get 5 percent.

That means now you have your "2x" cost netting 75 percent of the market. Moreover, the economics stop scaling. A "3x" cost only gets you an additional 20 percent. Most developers will demure from taking that "2x" investment up to "3x" unless there is a very compelling commercial argument to do so.

Looking at app store numbers to gauge the app gap is essentially useless. The economics of how software is made gives a much better answer -- the third place player, whatever that is at any point in time, will always lag.


An assumption that we'll make here is that users do care about apps. While there are some situations today where that is not true -- think Android users who don't buy data service for their phones -- that situation will change. Over time, apps that run on mobile devices will take over from the generalised web. It'll be through mobile apps that most people perceive the internet.

My view is that you can categorise apps into the following simple groups: games, the "burger joint" app, and service access.

For "games", you have to look at the experience. If you're really into mobile gaming, you are likely to look at volume. You'll play a game for a while, get bored, and seek another. Thus in this category, the app gap is important as you want the highest throughput of possible games.

(Remember as well that the app stores have historically been very top heavy with games --  of the top 100 apps, typically around 80 percent on iOS have been games, and 70 percent on Android.)

The "burger joint" app model is how I collate together apps that are designed to enhance brand loyalty and brand experience. Think about a poster outside a burger joint with "Available on the App Store" and "Get it on Google Play" messages. You see the advertisement, download the app, and get (say) free fries on that action.

These are the sorts of apps that are most sensitive to the "2x vs 3x" investment metric mentioned earlier. The management of the business is not using these apps as a revenue stream -- they are part of a sales and marketing budget. They will need convincing to broaden out and hit all three platforms.

This is unlikely to affect platform adoption though. If you have a device that's not supported on the scheme, you'll just opt out of the marketing. No one chooses an expensive smartphone just to get a free burger every couple of months.

The most important type of app is the "service access" app. This describes an app that only exists to get you into some other service, such as Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Instagram, etc.

Fortunately for everyone involved, users move onto and off of these services very slowly. In order to start using a service, you have to make increasing levels of investment. Firstly, you have to be convinced to use it. (If you're a Twitter fan, try convincing a non-user to love it as much as you do.) Then you have to use it enough to get value out of it. At some point in the future, some event will likely convince you to stop using it.

This curve takes a long time to get through -- often it can take multiple years. That means that any given user will have "service adoption curves" for different services that overlap at different points. This lessens the effect of the app gap, because it's only apps+services that the user has reached the peak of their investment in that they will care about.

To put it another way, that user is not going to see the value in services that they haven't used yet because value is experiential. No Instagram client on Platform Y? If you've never heard of Instagram, that's going to have zero impact on your decision.

For the user, they're only going to care about platforms they've already made an investment in when they come to choose a smartphone platform. Nothing else will really count.


When you're thinking about the app gap, just remember two things. One: there will always be an app gap. The economics of software development dictate that it must exist. Two: the relationship with the underlying service is the important part.

This is why all the platform owners like the virtuous circle of "devices plus services".

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Mobility, Apps, Windows Phone

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  • I love Windows Phone

    And the app gap is not an issue for me. The main/useful apps I need are available. I originally was annoyed that so many games were missing on Windows Phone or were paid for apps instead of free ad-supported ones (like so many are on Android), but in the end having bought an Android tablet (Nexus 7) just a month before I bought my WP8 device I realised that I much prefered the 7" screen for playing games and I almost don't play at all on my phone.

    So no app gap for me, all I need is there except our Quebec French newspaper ( which have both iPhone and Android app and are lacking a mobile website for the rest of us :-(
    • Sharing

      We do understand that an app gap would not be a problem for lots of people. Obviously the #3 platform at, say, 15% has a lot of people using it.

      The above article was to suggest that the gap is likely to continue (though Microsoft could pay to fill in the gap and I saw an odd little report yesterday that Microsoft is wrapping some web services and unilaterally putting these into its app store, to occasional surprise and sometime embarrassment of the vendor).

      Of course, if Microsoft pays, the profitability of the devices/services declines and one wonders if one as flush with talent and capital as Microsoft could undo the gap in a way that makes the platform attractive.

      Any way, the takeaway for you today is that you may never right-paren your emoticon vis a vis your Quebec newspaper.

      Nothing's perfect, and if your Windows Phone is satisfactory in every other imaginable way, you made the right choice.
    • Not the same here.

      I like my Windows Phone but I do have an issue with the app-gap. My main concern is that so many advertisements for apps mention that the app is only available for iPhone and Android. I only recently heard one that mentioned Windows Phone. There is still no Windows Phone mobile banking app for my bank and many others. Most banks only support iPhone or Android. Billboards, magazines, tv commercials...etc. are all advertising that their apps work with iPhone and Android. When I see Windows Phone start being included in all those apps, I'll know it has finally, fully arrived. Until then, I need my iStuff and aStuff to fill in the gaps. I've mentioned my thoughts here before but I'm thinking that right now, the perfect combination would be a Windows PC/Laptop, iPad tablet and an Android Phone. I don't have the Android Phone part yet but I'm contemplating it.
  • We're not all App Junkies

    I like the fact I get up & running on a WP without actually needing to install a thousand apps to make the phone functional. Aside from a Twitter, a bank app and a car GPS app, I'm happy to do the rest from the nice & integrated UI itself.
    • We may not all be

      But the reality is that, in fact, most of us are. A 2012 survey of mobile users found that time spent in apps is in about the same range of time spent in front of the television, 127 minutes a day.

      Apps matter. No one should kid themselves about this.

      The good news is for small platforms is "which apps?" I find that gamers, in particular, will play just about anything. So if your phone doesn't have Flappy Bird, you'll just download Growling Dinosaur....
    • Nokia has GPS

      Plus, if you have a Lumia, you get a GPS app that has off-line map support out of the box.

      Now, why AT&T instists on also shoving their apps on their phones is beyond me. The Nokia ones are better and do not cost me a monthly fee to use them.
      • Here maps are like garmin maps

        Here maps are like garmin maps, except they are free.
  • Web Based Integration

    I think to some degree the functionality companies are building into their mobile websites will offset some of the issue of missing apps on a platform such as Windows Phone. Many apps are merely a gateway to the data already available via the browser. Something like games likely won't ever be shored up by the available of browser based apps/sites but that helps close the gap even if a specific company doesn't offer a native app but an excellent mobile browser based experience.

    Most of what I need is available on the Windows Phone platform. There are plenty of apps that aren't in the ecosystem that I would live to have (such as Amazon MP3) but a quality browser based experience over a mobile in many cases suffices just as well as a native app.

    Microsoft's late entry into the market cost it the opportunity to be the dominate mobile OS. That being said the fact that you hack slice and dice Android in numerous different ways makes it the Windows of the mobile era. Thus far Windows Phone 8 and Windows Phone 8.1 don't have that level of customization available to the vendors or the consumers so even in Microsoft was first to market I don't think Windows Phone would have been any greater of a market share than Apple is today. But, both Apple and Google beat Microsoft to market and therefore unless Microsoft starts innovating a at a much faster pace than Apple or Google they probably won't even get past 10-15% market share I would think.
    • Almost forgot...

      I think the website is a great example of a good mobile site that works great in the mobile IE browser on WP that doesn't need a native app.

      I know the ZDNet on Android is decidedly worse than the mobile browser experience.
      • Oh, I dunno

        I've used the ZDNet mobile site. While it looks nice enough, I far prefer the app, because I can keep reading in offline mode, which I am a lot of the time.
        • It has it's advantages

          There are some advantages to the native app... There are alternatives. I admit they aren't currently on Windows Phone (Pocket / Instapaper).
      • @rmlounsbury no way, not sure where you got your knowledge

        The native app is decent enough and better than a mobile web site, as is usually the case. The ZDnet site isn't bad but typical for a mobile news web site.

        Its the same mobile web site experience (android anyway) whether on Chrome, firefox, stock browser, opera, dolphin, Next browser (probably others but those are all i've ever tried).
        I think you are just making excuses for not having a native app on WP.
  • The problem is the app vendors

    You don't honestly think some small mom and pop store creates there own apps do you? Its done by third party app vendors (willowtree, mobisoft). For example; Package deal #1 includes iOS and Android, Package #2 includes (#1) + Tablet apps, Package #3 includes (#1 + #2), etc, etc. Windows Phone is in their just not in the cheapest package which most companies opt for. If you ask me there are only a handful of platform and the app vendors shouldn't be so lazy. Porting code is easy once you get the hang of it.
    Sean Foley
  • In reality, the Rule of Three - exists to sell a book.

    "In reality, the Rule of Three . . ."

    Doesn't exist, except to sell somebody's book.

    How about getting economics from an actual economics textbook, rather than some random book that exists only to peddle around somebody's opinion of economics?
  • The number of apps can be a problem, not a benefit

    It goes without saying that the more apps you have in a store, the more difficult it will be for any developer to set themselves apart from the rest. How do you get your app noticed, even if it is demonstrably better than other apps with the same purpose. In other words, how do you get 'display shelf space'?

    And the problem is magnified for the app store customer. How do I find apps that are worthy of my attention? How do I find apps that do things I want to do? How do I tell which apps are secure and not malware? Do I really want to install and try out 10 - 20 apps that purport to accomplish a specific function, trying to find the best one? Do I want to rely on the 'editors choice' apps without knowing what inducement the editors got to plug the app, or whether their criteria for selection remotely mirrors what I want?

    App store bloat is a problem now and it is only going to get worse. Developers and customers need help navigating the mess that exists currently.
    • Its no problem, you are a WP user in denial

      I read a top 10 list of apps for the week, and try ones that sound interesting, or hear about in the news. That's about it. The bigger the number of apps = the better chance your platform will have the app.
      No, I don't need the Franz Joseph Land Accu-Weather forecast app or DPRK prison camp visitor app.
      • I guess I'm different in that respect

        maybe being older, I'm a bit wiser in that I look for an app when the need arises, I don't look at what's being pushed and download it because it's somebody else's top 10 of the week, feeling I need to try it.

        I'm not the kind of person these developers want - I view a smart phone as a small extension of me in that it useful at times when I need it to be, like any other tool

        App developers view people as extensions of the smart phone in that they become useful when the apps needs them to be, like any other tool.
  • Just non-sense.

    • @Owl:Net Boy, MS better give you a raise soon!

      You are sounding worn and weary - a losing battle defending MS these days. Matt writes a couple pages of thoughtful analysis and its "nonsense" to you. How so?
      • DrWong Lets Set The Record Straight

        You are always posting anti-MS on web sites that have articles about MS and its products/services. You are the one that should be called out not someone like Owl:Net that is reading these articles about which there is an interest.

        You are just trying to spread FUD because you have nothing to do with your time or you are paid by a MS competitor.