Digital Device Ecosystem

The 180-billion Conundrum: Why App Store Download Numbers Are Meaningless

Andreas Pfeiffer | October 06, 2013

One of these days, it seems, Google will out-app Apple: Apple just announced 180 billion app downloads; Google hasn’t published recent numbers, but could be significantly ahead of Apple, given the number of Android devices in existence.

What is wrong with this picture? Have we really come to the point where the only way of comparing something as important  in today’s technology-driven society as the app-store is the total number of downloaded apps? Are there no other worthwhile criteria to be taken into account before proclaiming the superiority of one platform over another?

Of course download numbers have their importance: they show that a platform is healthy and thriving (we can suppose that there is a good reason why download numbers for the Amazon app store are not prominently displayed) but by focusing too much on sheer numbers, we run the risk of neglecting other, and in my opinion far more important criteria for app-store evaluation.

In fact, looking more closely, download numbers are probably the least interesting aspect for evaluating an app store. App development, download behavior, usage patterns, quality and usefulness of apps are all becoming increasingly complex and convoluted aspects for which there are only few widely accepted criteria. In a nutshell, it’s a mess. And given the fact that app development has become a major outlet for human creativity with thousands of apps released every day, the situation is not going to get simpler all on its own.

Download numbers are treacherous to say the least. How many apps are downloaded but immediately deleted from the device because they are useless/disappointing/frustrating/annoying? How many apps that are not immediately deleted are actually used? How many apps that are used are actually useful on a permanent basis?

We have to face the fact that the sheer number of downloads is just meaningless. Apps, without further categorization or better criteria of quality are not a positive; apps are a byproduct of the technology evolution and the democratization of tools and distribution methods. The number of downloaded apps does not tell us anything. It’s like saying we are more literate today than 20 years ago because we exchange more text messages today than in the mid-nineties.

What can be done?

The real problem is not so much the usefulness of one specific data-point, it is the absence of other criteria. What we really, truly need is a way of judging and comparing the overall quality of app stores and their offerings. Since Apple only sells apps running on Apple devices, and Google only Android apps, the real comparison that would be useful would be one that helps a consumer judge the quality not only of the apps that are sold, but also of the app store itself.

Simply put: We need to know which platform has the better app store and the better apps – not which store provides a larger number of downloads.

Finding criteria to do so is difficult, but it is not impossible. For the tablet user experience benchmarks Pfeiffer Consulting recently published, we have started to establish a first set of verifiable, quantifiable criteria for app store sophisticationThis is only a first step, but at least these data shed some light on the significant differences between the dominating app environments. 

A lot more needs to be done.

(initially published 2013, updated October 11, 2018)