Has the tech industry forgotten users? We are in an insider bubble

You know when I read David Heinemeier Hansson write that all he needs is 10 apps I believe we’ve all lost our minds. Then I look at Techmeme and see all the insider baseball and nothing about real users and I realize we have indeed lost our minds.

See, people keep talking about a bubble. What they usually mean is “oh, my gosh Color got $41 million and LinkedIn stock is nuts.” Wrong bubble to worry about, though.

The real bubble is we’ve stopped understanding users.

See, this is why I took the family out of the valley on vacation. We visited Disneyland and Legoland. I watched how people used their phones. Apps rule.

Not everyone is ignoring users, though. I talk every day with developers who study user behavior.

For instance, AppStoreHQ studied its users and found that apps do indeed matter.

Turns out that if you STUDY THE DATA which DHH didn’t do, you learn that the long tail of apps is very important. Here’s some findings:

“Well, these users actually installed 20,100 distinct apps! Seen another way, among these 5,000 users, on average, they each had over 4 apps of which they were they only user. Out of the 20,100 apps, over 19,000 were installed by fewer than 250 users (5% of the sampled users).”

To continue the trend, GigaOm reports that apps are used more than the Web. Maybe this is why DHH is so anti-app. After all, his whole career is based on building websites and technology to build such (he was the guy who invented Ruby on Rails).

Nielsen says that DHH is wrong by 4x. They report that the average iPhone user has 48 apps loaded. “Heavy” users, like me, have 300 or more.

See, I met a lot of average people at Disneyland. I noticed that most of them were carrying Smartphones. iPhones and Android and RIM, etc. When you talk to these “normal people” they are VERY app centric. Many had the various apps for helping navigate lines at Disneyland or Legoland on their phones. And even if they didn’t have apps loaded, they were quite aware that some phones have lots of apps, while others don’t.

Over and over I understood why people buy certain phones over others. They don’t want to appear stupid. Even if they aren’t going to use many apps themselves. They want to have a phone that has lots of app potential.

I saw this on the retail counter at my camera store in the 1980s. I sold lots of Nikon cameras because that’s what the pros used at the time. Of course only 1% of my customers would ever use pro features of a camera, but they wanted to have the ABILITY to use those pro features. They often avoided “idiot cameras” which only had automatic features.

Or, look at car industry. Do you aspire to own a Toyota Corolla or Prius? Most people don’t. They’d rather have a big block Mustang or an Audi R8 which can do 200 mph. Thing is you’ll get a ticket on 280 for doing more than 80mph, so for most people this extra horsepower is wasted.

But humans don’t want to appear to be idiots. Which is why they won’t buy a system that only has a few apps available and is why the Nokia phones are DOA in most places in the world (I’d argue all places, because we’re all so connected on Twitter and Facebook now).

That all said, look at Realtor.com. They make a great app for tablets and mobile phones to help you buy a home. Of course they are going to support all platforms. Why? Because there’s enough economic activity to make that important for them.

Get the CTO of Move.com off camera, though, and he starts admitting he uses an iPhone and iPad and that their best work is done on the best two platforms. Note that he didn’t show me a Nokia or a Windows Phone 7 device in the video demo.

Over and over when I meet with developers I see this scenario play out. Developers are actively betting on Android and iOS and not much else.

Will users bet against the developers? My career experience says no.

By the way, for your iPhone I’ve made a list of my must have apps. I have more than 100, not 10. Anyone who uses only 10 apps is very weird, since they use 1/4 as many as the average user. DHH, get with the program!


  1. I was talking to @drodio:twitter the other day about his company’s new Socialize product.  He mentioned as part of the research for his product, his company discovered only something like 10% of apps that are installed are ever opened.  From the data you mention, it doesn’t necessarily follow that people use all those apps that they install.  I imagine @dhh:twitter might respond that he too has lots of apps installed, but they don’t represent much value.

    1. I deleted more than 150 apps recently as part of my spring cleaning. I grok that, but the list I posted to Quora has really useful apps. What’s interesting is that is the head of the tail and represents only a very small portion of the apps available. Who am I to tell you that your banking app isn’t useful? Or that your stock trading one isn’t. Or that the app to help you do math homework isn’t, etc. It is ridiculous on its face to say that all we need is 10 apps.

      1. Well said, and I have a few niche apps that I use heavily.  It would be interesting to see data on an average users app usage broken down between top apps and niche apps.

  2. I have to agree and disagree, I’m a developer who owns a Nexus One phone and a Xoom tablet and love both very much, I also do web content alongside apps in San Diego and have to say though I’m always downloading apps and installing them to try out, I really only use around less than 10 for my day to day. I don’t think it has to do with people’s inability to think of the user but rather personality, my personality is to keep things simple, I prefer logical order than kaos when I code and it’s no different having order on my phone, I go to audible app for my audio books, amazon player for my music, dogg catcher for my podcasts, news360 on my Xoom and the built in Google News on my Nexus, Facebook, Tweetdeck, the Built in Camera for pictures and video, the market place to search for apps and Gmail regularly. Yes I have a ton of games I bought but those are different in that I don’t use them regularly and some times even forget I have them until I’m bored waiting for something and happen to have time to play it. That’s just my personality, having read ReWork and Getting Started from the guys at 37 signals I figure they must have a similar personality as me, keeping it simple always. Though I’m always downloading apps, I rarely keep them around, once a month I go through my phone and if I don’t remember having used an app in the last week or longer then I remove it. Maybe the feeling is different on iOS but I chalk it up to a personality difference between you and @dhh and not necessarily that they don’t understand users, they just understand a different kind or type of user.

  3. At the recent Glue Conference I learned from a speaker there are over 7 million app developers in the world. If accurate, that data speaks volumes about the health and future of apps, users and devs.

  4. I agree with your statement, but that’s what I’m saying, I think he can be write in saying that people could be more productive with fewer apps in that my 10 apps will be different than someone else’s 10 apps or 20 apps, this idea that we have to have 50 on our systems for every little thing is great, but like I said I tend to spring clean as well and find myself getting rid of more apps than I keep. Though I may agree with the premise that we use fewer apps than we think we might need, I also agree with your long tail concept in that those 10 apps may be different for everyone thus filling the reason why our app market places are reaching the 100,000+ apps available.

    1. Try 500,000 apps available for iOS and 300,000 for Android. Whew! Too many apps! But, you are exactly right.

      I remember when people would say “can we get rid of 10% of the features in Excel so that it won’t be so bloated and take so much hard drive space and RAM?” Well, each feature was used by hundreds of thousands of people even if you only used 10%. So, no, can’t get rid of them.

      This is why apps are so important. I might have an app on my phone where I’m the only user, but that makes the device invaluable for me.

  5. I’m as attached to Android as some are to iOS, I’m actually considering the Galaxy 10.1 or the G-Slate once the Wifi only version of that comes out. I do like my Xoom though but my wife uses it more now than I do so I don’t consider it mine anymore LOL.

  6. Whilst my phones (iPhone and Android) and iPad do have pages of apps I have to say there probably only are 10 or so that I use constantly.  I’ll occasionally ‘re-discover’ an app I’ve previously downloaded that’s been hiding away on the screen, or use certain apps in very specific circumstances but for the most part the core remains fairly static – regardless of downloading and trying new apps pretty much daily.

    Of course, as said, every person’s ‘core’ app set is likely to vary ..

  7. LOL, DHH has made a career out of taking stark positions that involve saying no to choice, features, and apparently apps.  It serves him, but others like the other extreme (you know who you are, Robert!). 

    Ecosystems seldom have just one organism that is “right”.  Is the lion more successful or the gazelle?  We admire the lion, but there sure are a lot of gazelle’s.

    Choice and diverse ecosystems are the answer, and that’s what a vibrant app ecosystem and the Long Tail are all about.  DHH is right for himself, right for his business, but wrong for the overall world.



  8. When DHH says “use,” he means “need.” Installed apps do not map 1:1 to needed apps, or even to wanted apps after you try them out. Of the people I know, most have many screenfulls of apps, but they actually only use Facebook, Twitter, Web, Email, and about 5 or 6 others that depend on the individual. Of the twenty games a user has installed, he or she probably is currently addicted to 1 or two.

  9. You know, despite having downloaded many more apps onto my iPod Touch and iPad I really only use perhaps 10 or 12 at most. Hell 90% of my use on my iPad would come down to half a dozen apps beyond whats installed by default.

  10. I happy you understand this point, “Do you aspire to own a Toyota Corolla or Prius? Most people don’t. They’d rather have a big block Mustang or an Audi R8 which can do 200 mph. Thing is you’ll get a ticket on 280 for doing more than 80mph, so for most people this extra horsepower is wasted.”

  11. You are totally wrong on this, most people use those core apps and not 200-300. I am sure even you although you might post different do not touch each of those apps once a day, once a week or even once a month. Many simply stagnant, no updates no changes ok cool got that one looks good lets move on. Not to be re-opened until next Christmas when your board and are looking for something new. Once the core apps are covered, email, browser,  music, fb, twitter, FourSquare, etc your good to go.

  12. Excuse me but you are the weird here…100 Apps? You are tooooo American centric. Here in Europe it’s way way different. 
    - Roaming fees don t allow us to use our smartphone as we would like to. Too expensive. So each time you go to another country, you can’t use your smartphone. We don’t have a unified market.
    - Location-based Apps, such as Gowalla or Foursquare do not work here. Ok, you will look at the data and you will see it is growing. But it doesn t fit the european spirit. I have been using it for weeks and I can’t see the utility of these apps just because Europeans do not use it.

    - Shopping App: Honnestly, do you often shop in a bus or at disneyland?- Movie and picture, who would edit their pictures on a smartphone, or a video? I mean this is so user-unfriendly…- Music: We use the MP3 that every smartphone includes…I could do that to all your categories…I’m a huge fan of Twitter. I’ve been trying for MONTHS to encourage my friends to join this service. It is a waste of time. Most of the people aren’t curious as you are, aren’t focused on Internet as we are and can’t manage more that 2 or 3 online services.Plus, all these apps tend to mimic themselves. For example, Foursquare was successful with its location based app. Now you have this funcionality in Facebook and Google. So what’s the point to use Foursquare?Seems that european and amercian lifestyles are way different.

    1. Bullshit. I’ve been in Europe three times in the past six months. While speaking at LIFT I asked everyone what phones they use. They were more iPhone specific than most American conferences I speak at. And riding the subway in Paris, or taking a train in Switzerland, shows people are using just as many apps as they do in San Francisco.

    2. Oh, and Foursquare worked wonderfully for me in Paris, Munich, and Geneva. So I have no idea what you are talking about. I even used Foodspotting and found many wonderful food photos. Finally, you guys have Spotify for music which is taking Europe by storm.

  13. Robert – this is one of the best things you’ve written in a long time (and of course you’ve written many great things!), and you make two separate but equally important points. People use apps because they are the embodiment of task completion. People are on their phones to get things done, not to “surf the web”. Purpose-built experience (i.e. apps) will win. Whether the app is “native” or HTML5 isn’t really the point. It’s that the app has a clear purpose towards completing a task.

    Your separate point about the “cult of personality” going on in tech right now is also spot on. Most tech coverage is focused on fundings, people moves, tech celebrity spats, and so on, and not on what makes normal people’s lives more productive, and how normal people are using (or not) all this technology we are producing. Which is why your coverage of new companies and what they do, rather than the funding/IPOing/selling news, is so much fun to read.

  14. The amount of apps for a mobile device is not my immediate concern. Developers that focus only on iOS, then droid leaving out RIM and even Windows phones, that’s my issue. Is Apple and iOS really all there is to think about when you have a a useful application to share with the masses? Yes, maybe the statistics equate to greater usage or larger piece of the pie for iPhones, iPads or Mac, however, RIM still has a large part of the mobile market, albeit with a focus on business and corporate users. If I were a startup or a developer for mobile applications I would release an app on iOS, droid and RIM at the minimum.

    Personally I have no choice as a Blackberry user to limit the amount of apps I use on my phone which equates to 4 – 6 heavily used apps. Knowing that built-in memory is a POS, it would still be nice to have access to things like Square or Instagram. As soon as time allows I will be switching to a droid or iPhone simply because I want access to apps for personal and business use. Then the question becomes which carrier provides the best devices that fit my tech geek needs, what is the cost of the data plan considering I NEED bandwidth, and can that carrier handle coverage without dropping my connection? That should also be considered when thinking of the user base for mobile apps.

  15. You forget you stand in line with them for hours at a time in mostly shaded places where people CAN see their screens. You also forget that on Mainstreet you are standing with thousands of people waiting for parades. You also forget that the park is open until midnight, when there is no sun.

    1. His point is that if most of them are carrying smartphones (implying over half), then it’s not really a good average of Americans, since most (as in for sure over half) don’t even own smartphones.

      This also relates to your point regarding the number of iPhone users at LIFT.  If asked about what kind of device spread to expect at any tech conference, I’d immediately peg the iPhone as more predominant than the average.  That’s just the way it is.

    2. His point is that if most of them are carrying smartphones (implying over half), then it’s not really a good average of Americans, since most (as in for sure over half) don’t even own smartphones.

      This also relates to your point regarding the number of iPhone users at LIFT.  If asked about what kind of device spread to expect at any tech conference, I’d immediately peg the iPhone as more predominant than the average.  That’s just the way it is.

  16. I totally disagree about the Apple point. It’s provably wrong. Why do I say that? Because I have a Windows Phone 7 which has a provably better user interface/interaction model with no apps. It sucks, even though the UI is much nicer than that on my iPhone. Apple’s magic is that they changed the market and made developers hot and bothered. I’m sticking with Apple BECAUSE the developers are. If every developer kept coming to my house showing me killer WP7 apps you better believe me I’d switch to that.

    1. Robert, what are the five biggest apps that are missing from WP7 (if you had to pick five)?  I’m just curious to see how impactful I think they’d be to a wide cross section of people.

      1. Absolutely wrong question. And, anyway, there is a Twitter app on WP7 and it totally sucks when compared to the iOS version. So, what good would making a list of apps be anyway?

  17. I’m just surprised that you keep finding people who use all kinds of apps. I actually wish I’d meet more of them myself. I live in Seattle (a very wired city), yet nearly every time I talk to someone about their phone who isn’t a self-professed tech geek they say something like “Oh, i’m not really into apps.” I hear this at least twice a week. I see someone has a smartphone, ask them about it and what apps they use, and I get the “oh, i don’t know, just email and pandora.” Any apps they DO list tend to be from big established brands (kindle, netflix, etc).

    So the reason I think there are people out there who don’t really care about apps, is because I meet them all the time. I don’t know WHY they don’t care. It bugs the hell out of me. I can show them amazing stuff I’m doing with my phone. I can talk about how much time it saves me, and how much effortless entertainment I get from it. At some point, they will start talking about how they don’t want to be one of those people who use their phone all the time…they hate those people.

    My own girlfriend is going to buy a WP7 because she likes the interface, and it does exactly what she wants in a smartphone (texting, email, facebook, maps). She had a feature phone until now. I’m willing to bet, along with Microsoft, that there are millions of her.

  18. Robert.  You are getting hammered on your own blog, yet you do not delete any of the negative counterpoints.  If this were TechCrunch all negative counterpoints would have been wiped clean, only leaving positive comments.  Anyways, it’s refreshing you allow discussion even if the comments are overwhelming against you..  Having said that I vehemently disagree with your position on what the “average” user does with their phone.  IN middle America, we use the Twitter/Facebook apps, along with our favorite sports news app.  Throw in the Google email app and we’re good.  I have a Droidx btw.  I don’t think it could handle 300 apps as it freezes up often doing just the basic tasks.   I do plan on buying an iPhone when this contract is up.  To DHH’s point.  I just want a phone that works well doing the basic tasks.  One final comment.   I see Facebook eventually getting “things” right with check-ins and just about every other “app as a service”   FB will be baked into the most if not all phones.  .  

  19. Argumentative Scoble, problem is most of readers of this blog will not disagree with you. I myself as a avid technologist respect of your position.But at same time as I can see there is another filter problem, which app to install. 

  20. Sweet. Finally some sanity. So true. Like most of the commentors here, the folks in the bubble disregard the importance of understanding users. Some of us are actually in the trenches with small business users, entrepreneurs, and their target users diligently striving to grasp and meet their needs.It’s a blast, really. Frustrating at times, and always enlightening.

  21. The tech industry is always in a bubble. The geeky engineers building all this stuff rarely pay attention to users. One example: they have no clue just how many people and businesses refuse to store their data in the cloud.

  22. Hey Robert,

    I have a question though. Don’t you think that the difference between apps and web site is becoming less and less pronounced? Like 37signals, when we developed Apollo ( http://www.apollohq.com ) we had to decide whether we wanted to develop a native Android/iPhone application, or a mobile site. We too decided to go for the mobile site. If you think about WebOs, for them “applications” are effectively made up of HTML5, JS etc.

    I don’t know. I feel that the separation between apps and web site is becoming blurred.

    Just my 2c.