The share of adult cell phone owners who have downloaded an app to their phone nearly doubled in the past two years – rising from 22% in September 2009 to 38% in August 2011 – according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. The share of U.S. adults who purchased a phone already equipped with apps also increased five percentage points in the past year, from 38% in May 2010 to 43% in the current survey.
When both groups are accounted for—those whose phones came equipped with apps and those who have downloaded their own—fully half of U.S. adult cell phone owners (50%) now have apps on their phones. In May 2010, that figure stood at 43%. Looking at all U.S. adults, 42% now have cell phones with apps.
In addition to examining mobile app use on cell phones, the current survey included questions about mobile app use on tablet computers. It finds that among the 10% of adults who currently own a tablet, three-quarters (75%) report downloading apps to their tablet. This translates to 8% of all U.S. adults. The vast majority of tablet app downloaders (82%) have also downloaded apps to a cell phone, thus there is considerable overlap across the two groups.
Overall, when cell and tablet app downloaders are combined, 34% of adults report downloading apps to one or both of these devices.
These findings are from a survey conducted from July 25-August 26 among 2,260 adults ages 18 and over, including surveys in English and Spanish and on both landline and cell phones. The margin of error for the total sample is plus or minus 2 percentage points.
An “app” is an end-user software application designed for a mobile device operating system, which extends that device’s capabilities. Apps were first introduced in early 2007 with the Apple iPhone. Since then, they have become increasingly popular as other smartphone platforms and now tablet computers have embraced this form of accessing content. Indeed, app use has been a core feature in the broader move away from desktop computers toward mobile computing on handheld device.
App downloading is on the rise, but still concentrated in certain demographic groups
While the portion of adults downloading apps has grown since 2009, their demographic profile has not changed markedly, even with the addition of tablet computers to the mix. App downloading on cell phones remains concentrated among young adults, those with higher incomes and education levels, and those living in urban and suburban areas. In May 2010, cell phone app downloaders were also disproportionately male when compared with the full U.S. adult population, but the gap between men and women has decreased.
Adults who download apps to tablets (the majority of whom are also cell phone app downloaders) skew slightly more female and older than cell phone app downloaders in general. They also tend to be from higher income households, and more highly educated.
Apps reflect a broader mobile trend
The growth in apps downloading is a reflection of the broader trend toward mobile devices the Pew Internet Project has identified over the past decade. Americans have embraced mobile connectivity in the form of laptops, smartphones, tablet computers, and e-readers, while desktop computers have become less popular over time. In February of 2010, Pew Internet reported for the first time that laptops had overtaken desktops in popularity among 18-29 year-olds, and in the current survey, laptop ownership (57%) has equaled desktop ownership (55%) for the full adult population.
Moreover, in May 2011, Pew data showed that 35% of adults in the U.S. owned smartphones. Yet app downloading and use, while growing rapidly, is fairly low given the wide range of activities U.S. adults now engage in on their phones. Because many of these activities require “apps,” one might expect the percent of cell owners who download apps to perform these popular tasks (such as email, playing games, listening to music) to be higher.
Adults regularly use only a portion of the apps they download
Having apps and using apps are not synonymous. In May 2010, Pew Internet data showed that only about two-thirds (68%) of adults who had apps on their phones reported actually using them.
The current survey asked those who reported having apps on a cell phone and/or tablet computer how many apps they use on each device at least once a week. Among adults who have apps on their cell phone, roughly half (51%) use a handful of apps at least once a week, while 17% report using no apps on a regular basis. Almost a third (31%) could be called app “power users” in that they use 6 or more apps on a weekly basis. Among adults who have a tablet computer, 39% report using 6 or more apps on a weekly basis, while just 8% report using no apps regularly on the device.
Apps serve many purposes
Market data on apps use and downloading indicate that games continue to be most popular and those that adults are most willing to pay for, followed by apps for weather, social networking, maps/navigation/search, music and news.
The current survey asked app users if they had ever downloaded nine different types of apps. The most popular among this list were those that provide regular updates about everyday information such as news, weather, sports, or stocks (74%), those that help people communicate with friends and family (67%) and those that help the user learn about something in which they are interested (64%).
Different types of apps appeal to different demographic groups. For instance, African-Americans and young adults are more likely than others to download apps that help them communicate with friends and family. And overall, men are more likely than women to download apps that help them make purchases and those that help with work-related tasks.
About half of app downloaders have paid for an app
The new survey finds that among adult cell phone users who have downloaded apps, just under half (46%) say they have paid for an app at some point; this is unchanged from the 47% of downloaders who said the same in the May 2010 survey.
Among those in 2011 who report they have paid for an app, about half (52%) report that the highest dollar amount they have paid is $5 or less. However, 17% have paid more than $20 for an app. Among app downloaders, the groups most likely to pay for apps are men, adults age 30 and older, college graduates, adults with household incomes of $50,000 or more, and those living in urban communities.