Cell phones now permeate American culture. As they become more powerful as connected, multi-media, handheld devices, a new ecosystem of computing applications is being created around them. The emergence of this pervasive mobile connectivity is changing the way people interact, share creations, and exploit the vast libraries of material that are generated for the internet.
The newest national phone survey of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows that 82% of adults are cell phone users, and about one-quarter of adults (23%) now live in cell phone only households – that is, households with no landline phone. According to Pew Internet survey data, as of September 2009, three-quarters of 12-17 year-olds had cell phones, and a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study indicated almost a third of 8 to 10 year-olds in the U.S. have cell phones today.
The widespread embrace of mobile technology has spawned the development of an “apps culture.” As the mobile phone has morphed from a voice device to a multi-channel device to an internet-accessing mini-computer, a large market of mobile software applications designed specifically for cell phones has developed alongside it.
Currently, the cell phone industry lacks a standard, widely shared definition of what is and is not considered an “app.” Traditionally the term “app” has been used as shorthand for any software application. With the advent of the mobile phone, the term “app” has become popular parlance for software applications designed to run on mobile phone operating systems. For the purpose of this report, apps are defined as end-user software applications that are designed for a cell phone operating system and which extend the phone’s capabilities by enabling users to perform particular tasks. Assuming this definition, cell phone apps as discussed here are distinct from cell phone functions, which are hardware-enabled activities such as taking pictures and recording video and/or which run on systems software. Cell phone apps as defined here rely on or require certain systems software and/or hardware features to function, and may be thought of as being layered on top of them.
To understand whether and how U.S. adults have jumped into the emerging apps market, and how apps use compares to the use of other cell phone features, the Pew Internet Project recently conducted a national survey of adults age 18 and older that included 1,917 cell phone users.
Broadly, results indicate that while apps are popular among a young, tech-hungry segment of the adult cell phone using population, a notable number of adult cell phone users are not part of apps culture. Many adults who have apps on their phones, particularly older adults, do not use them, and one in ten adults with a cell phone (11%) are not even sure if their phone is equipped with apps. Moreover, apps use ranks fairly low when compared with the use of other cell phone functions such as taking pictures and texting.
35% of adults have cell phones with apps
Of the 82% of adults today who are cell phone users, 43% have apps on their phones. When taken as a portion of the entire U.S. adult population, that means that 35% have cell phones with apps. This figure includes adult cell phone users who:
- have downloaded an app to their phone (29% of adult cell phone users), and/or
- have purchased a phone with preloaded apps (38% of adult cell phone users)
A “yes” answer to either question was sufficient to include someone in the apps population. Of course, many cell owners (23%) have both pre-loaded and downloaded apps on their cell phones.
One in ten adult cell phone users do not know if they have apps on their phone
While 38% of adults cell phone users report having a phone that came preloaded with apps, another 11% of cell phone users said they did not know if their phone came with any software applications. This uncertainty about cell phone features is most pronounced among cell phone users age 50 and older, 15% of whom did not know if their phone came with apps. Just 4% of cell phone users under age 30 could not say if their phone came with software applications.
Adult cell phone users are more confident when asked whether they have ever downloaded an app, with 29% saying yes, 70% saying no, and less than one half of one percent saying they did not know.
Two-thirds of adult cell phone users who have apps actually use them
While 35% of adults have apps on their phones, only about two-thirds (68%) of adults who have apps report actually using them. That means that 24% of all adults in the U.S. use apps.
Among those who actively use their apps, the vast majority (91%) have used them within the past 30 days. Just 9% of apps users say it has been more than 30 days since the last time they used the apps on their phone.
Apps users are younger, more educated, and more affluent than other cell phone users
Apps users have a distinct demographic profile when compared with other cell phone using adults, and when compared with the entire U.S. adult population. Apps users skew male, and they are much younger than the broader population. Overall, they are also more educated and more affluent than other cell phone users or the adult population as a whole. The apps-using population also skews slightly Hispanic when compared with other cell phone users and all adults.
Among adults who have apps, age is the strongest predictor of apps use
It is clear that young adult cell phone users are the most eager apps adopters. While 79% of 18-29 year-olds who have apps on their phones say they use them, that figure drops to 67% among 30-49 year-olds and just 50% among adults age 50 and older.
Cell phone only adults (those who have a cell phone but no landline phone) are also especially likely to use the apps on their phone. Some 75% of this group who have apps say they use them. This may be due in part to a disproportionate number of cell only adults relying on their phones for internet access and participation in online activities.
It is not surprising that adults who are heavy cell users in general (heavy texters and heavy voice users) are much more likely than other adults to use their apps and to have used them in the past 30 days. The relationship between apps use and the use of other cell phone features/technologies is discussed in detail in Part III of this report.
Overall, adults who have more apps on their phone, those who have downloaded apps (as opposed to purchasing a phone that is preloaded with apps), those who have downloaded an app recently (within the past 30 days), and those who have paid for an app download are significantly more likely than other adults to actually use the software on their phones.
Among those who have apps, the average number of apps is fairly high at 18
Among adult cell phone users who have software applications on their cell phones, the mean number of apps is 18. However, the median number of apps is 10, indicating there are heavy apps users on the high end of the response scale who have a disproportionate number of apps on their phones. This is particularly true among the youngest adults.
Again, there is some uncertainty among cell phone users, particularly older cell phone users, about what software they have on their phones. Fully 18% of cell phone users with apps on their phones do not know how many they have. That figure doubles to 36% among cell phone users age 50 and older.
Looking just at those who know how many apps they have, young adult cell phone users on average have a greater number of apps on their phones. The mean number of apps for 18-29 year-olds is 22, compared with a mean of 16 for 30-49 year-olds, and 13 for adult cell phone users age 50 and older. However, the medians show considerably less variation, with young adults having a median of 12 apps on their phone and those over age 50 having a median of 8.
Apps use ranks relatively low when compared with other cell phone activities
While 24% of adults, or 29% of adult cell phone users, report using apps on their phones, apps use is not the most popular feature of cell phones when compared with other non-voice cell phone activities. Taking pictures and texting are far and away the most popular cell phone activities, with apps use ranking lowest among the various activities Pew Internet has asked about.
These data may reveal again, however, some uncertainty among adult cell phone users about when they are, and are not, using apps. Many of the activities in the above table, such as playing a game and sending and receiving email, often make use of software applications, and therefore constitute apps use. Thus, one would expect the percent who say they use apps to be higher. Yet, apps use garners a slightly lower percentage of “yes” responses from cell phone users than do other app-enabled activities.
One might infer from these figures that adults are not always aware when engaging in various activities using their phones that they are, in fact, using an app or software application. This may be due, in part, to confusion among the public over whether the different software that comes preloaded on their phone are “apps,” or whether an app is something that must be purchased separately or downloaded from the internet.