Thursday, September 23, 2010

An App for Everything: "The Rise of 'Apps Culture'" from the Pew Research Center

The popularity of smart phones has ushered in an "apps culture," according to a recent report from the Pew Internet Project. And some surprising things are revealed about app-consciousness. Take a moment and think about the importance your phone has in your life—beyond making calls, that is (which probably actually only account for a fraction of your usage anyway). If you own a variety of smart phone, really take a moment and consider the ways the device works to connect you—to businesses, people, media, and tools. If you own a "normal" phone, you may only have a fraction of these services available, but developers have tried to increase access to "perks" such as video and the Internet on standard devices. While these features are distinct from apps, which Pew defines as software applications that "extend the phone's capabilities" instead of being hardwired into the phone, they speak to a growing demand for connectivity.

Of the 1,917 adult cell phone users who were surveyed, the Pew Internet Project reports that 82% of adults are cell phone users, and approximately 23% of those adults live in a household where their cell phone is their primary telephone. We are being trained and taught that our lives are mobile. And we expect mobile devices to facilitate this connectivity. The pervasiveness of the mobile culture by itself is astonishing, but when coupled with the dependence and use of apps, could it help diminish the double digital divide?

The Pew Internet Project reports the following:
  • 82% of adults are cell phone users
  • 35% of adults have cell phones with apps
  • One in ten adult cell phone users do not know if they have apps on their phone
  • Two-thirds of adult cell phone users who have apps actually use them

These numbers are actually not all that surprising, when you consider the range of the demographics. The numbers include older adults who may purchase phone with preloaded apps, which they then don't actually use:
While 38% of adults (sic) 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 aged 50 and older, 15% of whom did not know if their phone came with apps (10).
In ten years, this numbers are likely to shift as the younger adults who appear to be more app conscious become the majority.  

The current 24% of cell phone users who actually use the apps are predominantly young, educated males:
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 populations as a whole. The apps-using population also skews slightly Hispanic when compared with other cell phone users and all adults (11).
This information is both troubling and hopeful. On the one hand, there is a clear leaning toward young, educated, affluent males having access to digital tools that may help them later in life. On the other hand, Pew reports that for many low income and nonwhite adults, cell phones have become their sole means of accessing the Internet and participating in social activities (19). So if Hispanic males are the group most likely to download and use apps, the evidence suggests that groups that have not previously have had access to technology, may be able to circumvent this particular divide via mobile technology. (I want to stress that I am not stereotyping Hispanic males as being uneducated and poor. I am using them as example from the Pew Internet Report that a non-white male population has accessed this type of technology, which could open the doors to other groups that historically have not had access to technology in the past.)

I have argued previously that the digital divide will widen to include a second layer of concern—it is not just a question of how those who have access to technology will be privileged over those who do not, but also a question of how those who know how to access technology will be privileged over those who do not. The second issue is tied to both resources and education, both have which been typically lacking in low income areas and places these students at a disadvantage.

An apps culture could change this.

Additional findings from the Pew Internet Project suggests that apps users are mobilizing this technology to assist in finding information. The most popular apps are games, but immediately following that are apps for news and weather, maps and search, and social networking:

Apps therefore provide an important means of connecting to resources and other individuals for users, and may prove to be a valuable tool for those whose devices can support the software. In this way, apps can provide the access that is a huge aspect of the digital divide. But they also can help close the educational gap as well: App users are more likely to look for news online, and engage in other social and capital commerce activities online:

With cellular phone usage growing rapidly in third world countries, apps may prove to be a successful means of providing technological access in adverse situations. As "standard" devices are developed to be more robust, hopefully the app culture can definitively spread beyond the smart phone genre.

 You can read the entire report here. Let's hear your thoughts below.

Photo by Pexels

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