500,000 Apps (and Nothin' On), Will Mobile Apps Get Serious in 2011?

By Mike Hernon - Published, January 21, 2011

Most of the buzz in the mobility world these days is about apps, apps and more apps. The growth in the number and variety of mobile applications during the past 18 months has been dramatic. This has been the result of the owners of mobile operating systems promoting their platforms to the application developer community and providing free or low-cost development tools. Mobile devices now compete in the marketplace on the strength and size of their application libraries as much as, if not more than, their voice and data services.

Many Defense Department and Department of the Navy mobile users feel left behind in the app wars. Due to, among other reasons, the need to maintain information assurance, DoD and Federal Government users typically have access to a more limited range of devices and operating systems than the standard consumer. Also, systems development on mobile platforms within the DoD has not grown as fast as in the consumer market.

The promise of the app explosion was to deliver highly functional mobile apps that would allow the mobile workforce to be as productive on their smart phone as if they were sitting in front of their office desktop computer. Is there any evidence that this is indeed happening?

An analysis of the state of mobile apps shows that, to date, they have not fulfilled the promises made. With enhanced connectivity increasingly becoming available, the opportunity exists for both the consumer and government mobile app environments to better support the mobile workforce with rich and robust productivity tools.

Apps Analysis

As of this writing the Apple Apps Store has 300,000 mobile applications available for downloading to the iPhone, iPod or iPad. There were 85,000 apps for Android-based devices, and a little more than 15,000 listed in the BlackBerry App World online catalog. Thousands of apps are also available for the Palm webOS platform, Windows Mobile, and more. These numbers will almost certainly be out of date by the time you read this.

Recent analyses of the way apps are actually used present some intriguing, if not depressing, insights, according to a Nielsen study. Twenty-one percent of American wireless subscribers have a smart phone, 59 percent of those have downloaded an app in the last 30 days, and the average number of apps on their phone is 22. However, another study of iPhone and Android apps shows that more than half of the people who downloaded an app abandoned it in the first month and after three months more than 90 percent of users abandoned the app. For those of you who engage in the "My phone is a better platform for apps than your phone" debates, be aware that the retention rates for both operating systems were nearly identical.

These statistics indicate a significantly high level of churn — users are downloading apps and then abandoning them at incredible rates. Why are people seemingly so fickle with the apps they took the time to download, and in many cases, paid for? The Nielsen study shows that a large majority, some 61 percent of app use, was for games. Perhaps once you have mastered Breakout or the latest fad game on your phone you’re not likely to go back to it.

Also, some apps are relevant for a limited time, for example, the Apps Store carried no less than a dozen vuvuzela soccer horn apps months after the World Cup has ended. Are people blowing their virtual vuvuzelas at National Football League games? Not likely.

And the productivity apps that were to lead the mobile revolution? They landed in a distant 11th place, representing only 22 percent of apps used. In 1992 Bruce Springsteen wrote "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)" as a complaint about the state of television. It is hard to escape the conclusion that much the same could be said about the state of mobile apps (not to mention TV) in the year 2011.

Toward a DoD App World

While DoD may be behind in the app game, the above suggests that, at least so far, we really haven't missed much. Delivering on the vision of an enterprise mobility capability that better enables our warfighters and those who support them to accomplish their missions untethered from the network remains a priority. Enhanced mobile capabilities can also cut down on desktop phone and computer expenditures, support ad hoc operations, such as continuity of operations and disaster relief efforts, and will no doubt play an increasingly critical role in tactical settings.

Bringing a robust, practical DoD mobile app capability into fruition will require steps from both industry and the DoD information management/information technology (IM/IT) community, including:

  • Connectivity enhancements. The commercial cellular providers are now rolling out their 4G networks, which deliver significantly higher data transmission speeds than today's networks. The 4G will be a critical enabler for app support in general, and allow some applications, such as mobile video conferencing, to operate in a wider variety of settings without Wi-Fi.
Within DoD installations, Wi-Fi and WiMAX capabilities will need to expand dramatically. In addition to providing broader signal coverage, keeping the traffic within DoD domains as much as possible will increase functionality and security.
  • Application and Architecture Integration. All new application development efforts should consider how to best integrate the mobile user from the ground up, instead of later as a "bolt-on" capability. Today's mobile clients are more than powerful enough to run apps from the cloud, and in many ways are more powerful platforms than a desktop thin client computer. Likewise, as DoD and its components build their transport infrastructure to deliver unified capabilities (the delivery of voice, video and data on an all Internet Protocol (IP) converged network), mobile networks and users must be part of the planning and deployment process.
  • DoD App Store. Because of the Federal Government and DoD's unique security requirements, an app store dedicated to DoD developed or approved apps will probably be necessary. This will ensure that the only applications that touch the Global Information Grid have been properly vetted and reviewed. A common DoD repository for mobile apps will also promote sharing of apps across the community and will better leverage the investments made in developing them.
  • Enhanced Security. The encryption algorithm that protects many of today's cellular transmissions has been broken and can be easily exploited with minimal investment or technical expertise. Industry must continue its efforts to respond to, and hopefully, avert such breakdowns.
  • End User Insights. Many of the apps available in the commercial marketplace are duplicative, have a limited life span, or otherwise provide little value to the end user. DoD must develop the mobile apps that people need and will use. Soliciting input from the warfighter and other communities of interest will facilitate the delivery of apps that are both functional and relevant to the DoD mission.
  • Policy. Maintaining a balance between information assurance and increased wireless use for official business will remain a challenge as technology continues to advance and consumer experiences continue to expand. Wireless policy must be robust enough to meet user expectations while protecting the information stored and transmitted by mobile devices. In some cases, existing policy may need to be relaxed.
Groundbreaking Future DoD Apps

Apps developed within DoD on mobile platforms so far have primarily been stand-alone applications. These apps store content on the mobile device for reference later and no active wireless connection is required. Examples include MobiAFG, developed by the Naval Postgraduate School, which provides a trove of content related to Afghanistan for deployed troops, and the Individual Augmentee mobile app developed by U.S. Fleet Forces Command to support deployed Sailors performing duties outside of traditional Navy billets. For connected devices, the Marine Corps Marathon developed a feature rich app delivering real-time race updates and results.

Future mobile apps are envisioned to support a broad range of DoD and DON activities from the back office to the battlefield. By learning from the current state of the commercial app environment, a more focused and relevant DoD app environment can be developed.

Mike Hernon is the former chief information officer for the city of Boston. He supports the DON CIO in telecommunications and wireless strategy and policy.

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