Test run: Techcrunch guest post: Do you +really+ use all those mobile apps?

My iPhone 4 home screen

Yesterday on the Gillmor Gang, Michael Arrington renewed his request to me to do a guest column for Techcrunch. I have resisted that urge for a while. Why? Well, my blog hasn’t been getting enough of my time lately and doing something for some other media outlet would require me to stretch myself even thinner (IE, it’d mean even fewer posts here). Anyway, thought I’d try this here and see what your reaction would be. Should I do it? If I did, this is the post I’d write today:

When I tell people I have 359 apps on my iPhone, they almost always answer back with the same question: “do you really use those apps everyday?”

That’s the wrong question.

Why? Because some apps, like iHandy Level (helps me level picture frames and other things) or my Flashlight app (helps me find my key in the dark when my wife turns off the light by accident) or my heartrate monitor (I use it to help calm down when an entrepreneur chooses the wrong philosophical path) are explictly not designed to be used everyday. There are a ton of heart-rate monitors for iPhones, for instance.

Getting asked that does cause me to think deeply about where we are in mobile and where we’re going.

I’ve asked a half-dozen audiences, some early adopter heavy, some not, how many have used more than 100 apps on their mobile phones? The highest answer I got was about 4% of the audience. Since there are 300,000 apps available on iPhones I find that fact to be interesting. It means that we have a lot of human behavior to change.

Why is 100 apps an important mark? Because going over that bar forced me to change my behavior. First of all, I needed to put apps into folders. If you don’t use groups your iPhone or iPad can’t even display all 359 apps I have.

The second change that it forced is that I no longer can remember every app I have on my phone. It’s sort of like a new kind of Dunbar number. Here, let me write a new behavior law: you will not be able to remember all of your apps if you have more than 100-200 on your phone. Some people might reach that new limit at 30. Others, who have better memories, might be able to remember 200, but I haven’t found anyone yet who can remember every app over that.

So, I’ve switched to searching for apps. Need Instagram? I swipe to the left, to get to Apple’s search screen. Then I start typing “I..N..S..T” by the time I get to the fifth character, or usually sooner, the app comes up and I can click on it and use it.

Yes, I do that even for apps I use multiple times a day, like Instagram. Why? Because it’s faster to use search than to try to remember which group I put it in.

So, I search for apps by name and what they do. Typing “L..E..V..E..L” brings up the level app. And so on, and so forth.

Some problems with this approach.

1. Search on the iPhone sucks because it mixes in contacts with apps. Makes it a little hard to find things. I have 8,000 contacts, though, so my experience is different than most normal users.
2. Lots of apps don’t include in the name what it does. Foursquare, for instance, lets you check in at various places. Or, it’s a location-based service. But try searching for “check in” or “location” and you’ll never find Foursquare. I’ve found lots of apps have been named in such a way that you’ll never find them if you search for what they do. “Find new iPhone apps” won’t pull up “Chomp,” for instance. So, that still requires you to remember the names of the apps, which most people can’t do over 100 apps. Real problem here.
3. If you don’t use folders you’ll never be able to add more than a couple of hundred apps (my iPad can’t display all the apps I’ve installed, for instance). Want to see my home screen? I’ve included it on this post. The problem with folders is Apple limits you to 12 apps in each, which is totally ridiculous. So now I have “location-based apps one” and “location-based apps two” etc. Also, if you get enough folders you’ll forget where you put things into. There’s definitely a limit.

So, there’s a real barrier to using a ton of apps.

Back to the question: do you really use all those mobile apps? Quick answer: no. But I use most of them enough to keep them on my phone. Certainly I use enough of them to demonstrate to you why apps are becoming hugely important to your next purchase decision (phones that don’t have many apps shouldn’t get supported by you because most of the functionality of phones now exists in the apps, not in the device itself).

Here’s why it’s still the wrong question to ask. Remember when everyone used to ask Microsoft why they couldn’t cut down the feature set of Microsoft Office to get it to run faster and take less space on disk (those questions don’t matter today, because our computers have gotten faster and our hard drives have gotten so much bigger that MS Office doesn’t even look that big anymore, but back in the 1990s this was a very common question)?

Well, the answer was that each feature in Excel, for instance, was used by 100,000 people. So, no one was able to cut features and say “that 100,000 people don’t matter.”

I have one app, for instance, Epocrates, that I have never used (and hope never to really need). But a Stanford Surgeon explained to me how it totally changed his life (and the lives of his patients). I keep that app on my phone so I can show it to doctors I meet. It’s a magical app that has transformed health care around the globe.

Another app I rarely use is Star Walk. With this you aim your phone or iPad up at the sky and it shows you what stars, planets, and other things are in the patch of sky you’re looking at. When I was in Jackson Hole my friends literally gasped when they saw how cool this app was (we could actually see the sky there).

A lot of apps I have on my phone are for various food-related things. Yeah, I love Foodspotting. You can see the awesome meals I’ve eaten in this app and I’m adding more every week. But I have a range of other apps, as well. Yelp, Urbanspoon, In-N-Out, Fiddme, Starbucks, and Zagat help me find restaurants and coffee shops. OpenTable helps me make reservations (although I use that one less because Yelp and Zagat have integrated its API into their apps). But I have a ton of other apps around food and meals. SocialGrapes and Wine Ratings helps me share which wine I am drinking, and find new ones from friends there. Omaha Steaks helps me order steaks for special at-home meals. KitchenHelper, Jamie Oliver’s 20 Min Meals, Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, Epicurious, KitchenHelper, AllRecipes, helps me make meals by showing me recipes and helping me learn to cook at home.

Expensify helps me do my expense reports.

Zillow helps me see what homes around me are worth.

Google Voice helps me see who has called me and get back to them, even if I don’t have my phone (I left my phone at home by accident this week and I borrowed a computer from someone to get into my account and see who has called me).

When I travel I use a range of apps, from Kayak, TripAdvisor, Expedia, etc to find airline tickets (although I’ve started to switch over to Hipmunk for that), rental cars, places to stay, etc. TripIt stays on as I travel because it tracks my flights and other info, and tells me how to direct cabs there. Speaking of cabs, in San Francisco I love using “Uber” because it will get me a ride, even if I’m on a street that doesn’t see many cabs. One of the funny apps I keep on my iPhone just for emergencies is “SitOrSquat.” Helps you find restrooms. I also have added the Find iPhone app, just in case someone takes my iPhone. I can use any computer to find out where it is and hopefully reclaim it. My boss had his iPhone stolen this week and he didn’t have that capability. $600 gone.

When I want to listen to something, there are a range of apps, including NPR’s news and NPR’s music apps, SoundHound, Last.fm, to Sonos and Boxee’ controller apps (I just got a Boxee box, so am using that more lately).

When I’m driving around I use Trapster, to see where the police are hanging out, Waze, to see more details about traffic conditions (often has more details than other maps, especially in non-US countries like Spain and Israel). Glympse, so I can show the folks I’m meeting with where I am, so they know where to expect me. AroundMe to find gas stations and other stores I need.

When shooting photos or videos I find a I use a variety of tools, from my favorite sharer, Instagram, to AutoStitch (makes great panoramic photos) to iMovie, for editing my videos, to Justin.tv or Ustream (viewer app, broadcasting app) for live streaming, to PhotoCard, for making postcards out of my photos (will be very useful for holiday cards this week) to Hipstamatic, for adding effects to my photos, amongst others.

I could keep going, but you get the idea. Note that I haven’t even talked about social networking apps like Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn (all three are used a lot every day) or news apps (I have a metric ton of those, from CNN to Skygrid to Flipboard on my iPad, etc). There’s a lot of apps out there, I’ve only seen a very small percentage (I rarely play games, for instance, so only have a few on my phone). The same is true of anyone you meet. Most have only a handful of apps and don’t even know what they are missing or what their new whizbang phone can do.

I find that sad, so I use Chomp to rate and review apps, you can see my account here. Actually, a better place to see all the apps I have loaded is Appsfire. My Appsfire list is here. Funny enough, that’s my least used app in the past month because I’ve been trying to just use my apps and let all of you catch up. But I’ll put more effort into that now.

Anyway, should I write guest posts like this one for Techcrunch? Why? Why not?

UPDATE: One good example of an app that’s invaluable, but that I don’t use very often, is the Rackspace Cloud iPhone app. That lets me spin up, and manage, new servers for web hosting and other purposes. I keep it mostly to demo to developers what they can do with their iPhones.