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Does an app store's size matter if content is the killer app?

Perhaps it's time to stop comparing mobile platforms in terms of number of apps offered and look instead at what music, movies, TV shows, and books are available.

Danny Sullivan
Danny Sullivan is a journalist who has covered the search and internet marketing space for over 15 years. He's founding editor of Search Engine Land and Marketing Land, and writes a personal blog called Daggle (and maintains his disclosures page there).
Danny Sullivan
7 min read
App Store promo on Apple's Web site Apple

Apple claims 500,000 apps in its App Store for the iPhone and over 700,000 when iPad apps are added in. Google Play claims 600,000 apps for Android. Windows Phone is estimated to have 100,000 apps in its marketplace.

But do the numbers really matter, especially when the "new apps" may be content like video, music, and books?

I'm not a big fan of numbers just for numbers' sake. I watched search engines play the numbers game for years, each trying to be "bigger" than their competitors by having more Web pages. Those figures didn't give you any idea which search engine was actually most relevant, which is far more important. It doesn't matter if one claimed to have gathered twice as many pages as another if the bigger one still didn't find what you were looking for.

I've had a somewhat similar view of app store counts for some time. After a certain point, another 50,000 apps here or 100,000 apps there seem to make little difference. We get it. Your mobile platform has a lot of apps. But does it have the apps that matter?

The apps that matter to me
For me, the number of apps in the various app stores especially seems a fairly useless metric, having just done a fresh inventory of the apps I use.

Two weeks ago, with some downtime while on vacation, I finally tidied up the apps on my iPhone 4S, grouping ones I hardly use into folders. The ones that matter, that I often use? They all easily fit on my home screen. That means of those 500,000 iTunes apps available for the iPhone, only about 12 of them actually mattered to me or 0.0024 percent, if I've done the math right.

This week, Google sent me a version of the Galaxy Nexus with the latest "Jelly Bean" Android 4.1 operating system on it. That prompted another look at my apps, as I started adding apps to the new phone that I was using on my existing Android 4.0 Galaxy Nexus. Once again, I had 12 key apps that all fit on the home screen. Of those 600,000 apps available to me from Google Play, I'm tapping into only 0.002 percent of them.

My desert island apps for Android
What are my important apps? Let me start with the Galaxy Nexus and list them in order of priority, the ones I find essential, ones I use at least weekly, if not several times per day:

  1. Email (sadly, Android 4.1 still hasn't added the much-needed conversation view)
  2. Browser
  3. Camera
  4. Calendar
  5. Twitter (I share a lot on Twitter)
  6. Google+ (I like to share there, too, especially pictures)
  7. Facebook (I share here, too -- are you sensing a pattern?)
  8. Foursquare (More than sharing, I use it as a essential local search tool)
  9. Google Voice
  10. Instagram
  11. Kindle
  12. Google Maps with native GPS

    For the iPhone, pretty much the same
    Now let me move to my iPhone. What's missing from the list above?

    • Better Google Voice integration
    • Native GPS

    Google Voice on the iPhone would improve if it were native in the operating system, as with Android. But it works well enough that I don't hesitate to go out only with my iPhone and worry that I'll miss some call that's being routed through Google Voice. Not that I get calls on my phone much anyway. These days, I use them almost exclusively for data.

    I definitely miss that the iPhone doesn't have built-in GPS as does Android. That's a feature I often use, and I never seem to get around to finding and installing an alternative for the iPhone. Soon, I won't need to. iOS 6 will give the iPhone native GPS in the coming months.

    Is there anything I use often on the iPhone that's not on my Android list? The music app. The iPhone was built from the beginning to play music, and things like iTunes Match have only made it better. If I'm going some place where I think I want music, say the gym, I usually reach for my iPhone. Of course, I could easily bring my Android phone up-to-date with my music library, if I wanted to. I just never get around to it.

    The iPhone can also run Microsoft's cool Photosynth app, which allows you to create virtual worlds with photography. Android doesn't have that. But it's not an app that I use that often.

    As for my calendar, since I use Google Calendar, that works perfectly well to also keep the iPhone's native calendar app updated (as it does for Windows Phone).

    Even Windows Phone isn't missing much
    Speaking of Windows Phone, it has an app market that's about one-fifth the size of either Apple or Google. How's that impact my key apps? I don't get:

    • Google Voice
    • Google+
    • Instagram

    Not having Google Voice on the phone is a real issue for me, something I've written about before that I hope Google will correct. If you depend on Google Voice, that app -- rather than the 399,999 others that Microsoft doesn't have -- is what you'll miss. But I'm fairly sure many phone users out there don't depend on Google Voice.

    Google+? If I really wanted, I could get things going using the Web browser. No Instagram? There's Bubblegum, though that only give me cool photo filters, not the ability to share with the Instagram community. A deal-breaker if you're really into Instagram. Plenty of people aren't.

    App counts are so last year
    The main point is that another 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 apps won't solve the relatively minor inconsistencies across platforms for me, nor do I suspect that the vast majority of apps out there are going to make that much of a difference in influencing whether someone buys iOS or Android or Windows Phone. Still, the numbers game keeps going.

    I think the real action is shifting over to the content game. I've been testing the new Google Nexus 7 tablet (early take: impressive, better than Kindle Fire, a great option for anyone who finds the iPad too large or too expensive). The home screen is remarkable:

    Danny Sullivan

    Google Play is positioned front-and-center. By Google Play, I don't mean the new name for Google's old Android Market. I mean what really happened when Google Play was launched, the play for Play to firmly put Google in the content-selling game.

    The Content Games
    Forget those hundreds of thousands of apps. Perhaps one of the biggest device questions going forward is who gives access to the greatest number of songs, movies, TV shows and books, along with options to rent or buy and support of cross-platform consumption. Those things might more firmly tie me to a device (or really, a content store) than anything else.

    When it comes to music, I've done most of my purchasing with Amazon. I was attracted by its DRM-free music early on, and iTunes has never really pulled me back. Moreover, Amazon cleverly makes it easy for music I purchase to flow into my iTunes library.

    Most important, Amazon always seems to have all the music iTunes has at the same price. I have no particular reason to shift, just like those who like iTunes have no particular reason to shift to Amazon.

    Being comprehensive, being portable
    It's different for Google. When Google Music (now Google Play Music) launched last November, it made it easy for Android users to purchase music directly from Google rather than turn to Amazon or Apple. But Google Music still seems to come up short on matching the selection of its competitors. It was a problem at launch, and I continue to run into it. One example: Google Play doesn't have any albums from the popular band Paramore. Apple does. Amazon does. Even Microsoft does.

    Comprehensiveness is one issue; portability is another. Moving music these days is easy. Moving your video around is not, thanks to large file sizes and DRM.

    I also tend to buy my video from Amazon. Doing this, however, leaves it inaccessible to me on my mobile devices -- with the key exception of the Kindle Fire. There's no Amazon Video app for the iPhone nor Android. Watching through a browser only works if you have Flash. iOS doesn't, and there is no Flash support for the newest version of Android.

    With Google, I have more portability. If I can play YouTube, I can play my purchased video -- even on my iOS devices.

    How about books? DRM exists here, but Amazon has Kindle apps that let you read on Android, iOS and Windows Phone. Google Play Books supports both Android and iOS.

    Then there's Apple, where you can check in to its content ecosystem but you can't check out, other than music. Your books, your movies, your video. Those get locked to Apple's platform. That might sounds like an advantage, but it can also be a disincentive to buy. For example, there are some who prefer Kindle specifically because they want to read on both Kindle hardware and non-Amazon mobile devices.

    Games are a special case. They're both apps and content. If you're really into particular games, if one platform lacks a title, that might prompt going with another. So, too, is staying with that platform if you've spent a lot on games. On the other hand, if it's Angry Birds you're after, the various platforms all have it and switching is only $1 or less away.

    Content: the killer app?
    Rather than number of apps, these are the issues I think are more important to watch as the various mobile platforms continue to compete. What type of content can you purchase? Are there gaps in selection? After you buy, how locked to the platform are you? Content might, in the end, be the killer app.

    What made you buy?
    I've shared my experience that when it comes to apps, I could easily shift between iOS or Android. I'm curious to hear from readers. I'm not looking to spark fanboy comment wars. As I've written before, there is no "wrong" phone. Whatever works for you, works for you.

    I'm just wondering if there are key apps that some found make it essential for them to go with a particular platform. Please share! And if you made your choice not based on apps, what was the primary reason or feature that made you go for a particular device?