Apps Have No Intrinsic Value

Today I saw this article online. Granted the information is from 2012, but the article reports the conclusion from an analytical firm that 60% of the apps in the App Store have never been downloaded, even once.

This figure is both astonishing and completely unsurprising.

You might argue that discoverability is a big problem, and that other App Stores that let you see new or recently updated apps easier might not have this problem.

You might also argue that a large portion of these are fart apps or redundant flashlight apps, or other things that you would not expect people to use regardless.

However, in my personal opinion, this points to a more fundamental problem.

Allow me to share an anecdote.

Some time back, I learned that Amazon regularly has App of the Day deals, where they give away apps that are normally paid, sometimes in large bundles.

Once I learned this, I took advantage of the deals a few times, especially if it was something that had gotten a lot of hype, thinking that I may as well check it out at some point.

However, not once yet have I even opened a free app that I’ve downloaded, other times I’ve passed up downloading them, and most of the time, even when I remember, I don’t even bother to check what’s available that day.

It’s not that I don’t like free things. It’s not that the Apps selected aren’t professional, quality software that someone put a lot of effort into. It’s not that if I took the time to play their game, I wouldn’t have fun with it.

It’s simply the law of diminishing returns in effect. There’s a glut of media competing for our time. There’s over a million apps on both leading app stores. Most of these fill a similar utilitarian purpose in our lives, so the probability that yet another app will contribute substantially to our lives is ever decreasing.

The end result is that even as someone who’s an enthusiast, who is passionate about apps, and has gone through the process, and is most likely to be empathetic to other developers and interested to see what they’ve done, is not even willing to take the product for free most of the time.  And I know from experience that in many cases where this does happen the product doesn’t get used for a long time if ever.

To me this is similar to what happened in music. The internet revolution happened, everyone was upset about downloading for a while (and many still are) but then eventually every band had a Myspace, and leveraged it as a tool to be discovered. Genres long dormant came back in full force.  Instead of catering to the most general audience possible, the internet allowed people to find exactly what they wanted. This is still the case, however, now there’s such a saturation that as a band it’s difficult to get attention even if you give your product away for free.

The irony is that smartphones and the internet make everyone more connected than ever before, the barriers for entry are nearly nonexistent, but not only is it as hard to be noticed as ever, the intrinsic value of a professional, polished product has been eroded.

You still see juggernauts in the room like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush; free to play games that rake in billions. I thought this article was a very insightful analysis of phenomena like this. First of all, they’re giving away their product for free, and counting on “whales”, a small portion of their audience willing to spend a ton of money on in app purchases. This is usually in the 2-3% range, whereas 20% of the downloads are opened once but never again. To me this indicates that these games are fun, free little distractions that the overwhelming majority of the audience don’t value to any real degree. Even this market is saturated, and many of the successful FTP games require glitzy TV commercials with CGI dragons and celebrities to get noticed. Oh, and half a second of actual gameplay footage. My overall point is that it seems that, marketing aside, any one of these is just as good as any other, and that audience engagement is overall fairly low in the first place.

Keep in mind, I’m not complaining. I’m not a fan of free to play games but I don’t have a problem with them existing. I’m not upset that it’s increasingly difficult to get noticed. None of this is intrinsically bad, this is just my analysis of market forces at work.

The real question is, what do you do about it? There’s tons of people saying “it’s my dream to make apps.” Yet, the data seems to show that apps have no intrinsic value whatsoever, and it’ll be extremely difficult to give away your product even for free.

We said that music was in a similar boat earlier, where people aren’t willing to take it for free. Yet, a couple bars of the Zelda theme can bring a convention audience to tears. And people most certainly still listen to and download music (legally and illegally).

Similarly, everyone’s on their phone and companies are ruthlessly pursuing app development and mobile integration. Back to my point about the law of diminishing returns. What problem are you solving? If you look at the set of the mobile-driven companies that are getting attention, and are getting press, you see such representatives as Netflix, Uber, Pandora, Amazon, Google, Facebook, etc. These are companies that aren’t in the “app business.” They’re using mobile to enhance a business. What problem are you solving? In my opinion the honeymoon phase of the mobile market is over; people already have a glut of toys to play with on their phones, things that require a time investment. Figuring out a way to build a business and use mobile to give back to the user, that’s where the real “change the world” stuff is at.


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