This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2013-05-17 at 3:13 p.m.
The permanent URL for this article is: http://tidbits.com/article/13774
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Adding Context to Big Number News

by Adam C. Engst

Josh Centers, our new managing editor, asked recently if we should do an ExtraBITS link for Apple’s press release [1] about the 50 billionth download from the App Store, and he also suggested one for The Loop’s article [2] about Pixelmator’s announcement of 500,000 downloads [3] in one week after the release of Pixelmator 2.2. My initial reaction was, “Sure, those are big, interesting numbers.” But then I thought better of it. And then I realized I had to explain my discomfort — there’s just not enough context, and what context is given may not be the entire story.

50 Billion Downloads and Nothing On -- Let’s take Apple’s 50 billion app downloads first. Apple is careful, in a footnote, to exclude re-downloads and updates, so at least we know they’re not jacking the number up inappropriately. Apple also gives the App Store launch date of July 2008, so we can calculate that it took nearly 5 years to hit 50 billion downloads. With the added detail that users are now downloading apps at a rate of 2 billion per month, it becomes clear that the download rate is increasing rapidly. That’s all interesting and can probably be explained by the ever-increasing number of iOS devices in the wild.

However, there’s an unanswered question, which is, why are users downloading so many apps? It’s easy to do, especially when they’re free, and there are plenty of compelling apps out there, but that’s not explanation enough. The implication is, therefore, that downloading apps in general is a good thing to do, and indicates that users are getting something of value in return.

But what’s your ratio of apps downloaded to apps that you actually use? I’ve downloaded 386 apps so far (assuming the iTunes count is accurate), and a spin through my multitasking bar shows that I use fewer than 10 percent of them on anything resembling a regular basis. I have apps for Web sites I was using for research a year ago and haven’t launched since. I have apps I’ve never used because it was too much trouble to set up an account or extract from LastPass the strong password I made for the app’s site. I have three or four apps that do the same thing because I couldn’t differentiate among them based on weak App Store descriptions (and I often forget which of them was best in the end). I have apps that I have no recollection of downloading and no idea as to their purpose.

Frankly, it’s a huge and stressful mess — I don’t want to waste valuable time tidying my app collection! — and since I’ve seen plenty of other people in the same boat, I’m having a hard time seeing the announcement of 50 billion downloads as an unalloyed good thing. If 90 percent of those downloads represent bad choices, misrepresented or buggy software, wasted time, and ongoing stress caused by overwhelming clutter, that 50 billion number is downright scary.

It doesn’t have to be like this. We’re never forced to face the history of every Web site we visit — once you navigate away from a site that won’t be valuable on an ongoing basis, its only residue in your life is likely a history entry in your browser and maybe a cookie remembering your state.

So Apple, stop boasting about how many unused apps are taking up space on our devices and in our brains, and put some effort into helping us by hiding or even deleting apps that haven’t been tapped in years. They’re easy to download again, so there’s no harm — we’d probably never even notice.

For an added bit of context, Google just announced that there have been more than 48 billion Android apps downloaded [4], and they’re seeing 2.5 billion app installs per month. All I can think is that Android users must be caught in the same cycle of downloading and abandoning apps.

500,000 Downloads and Holy Cats! -- I must gently plink my friend Jim Dalrymple of The Loop for using the term “downloads” to describe Pixelmator 2.2’s success — while not inaccurate, with commercial software in the Mac App Store, it conflates purchases and free updates. You could read his headline and think that Pixelmator had sold 500,000 copies in a week. Of course, that’s not true, and the Pixelmator Team is careful to note on their site that the 500,000 number refers to updates, not purchases.

But still! I’m not a graphics guy, and although Pixelmator is in fact in my Applications folder, it’s a demo version from 2009. (Yes, I should delete it, but Mac OS X, particularly when coupled with LaunchBar, is much better about concealing app clutter than iOS and iTunes — I seldom even open my Applications folder.) So although I’m certainly aware of Pixelmator, I had no conception that it was popular to the tune of over half a million users. Many well-known Mac developers would be ecstatic to have user numbers at that level.

Back on 29 August 2012, the Pixelmator Team noted that Pixelmator 2.1 had garnered 250,000 updates in two weeks [5], half as many in twice the time. The implication is that Pixelmator has more than doubled its user base in less than a year, which may or may not be true, since there were undoubtedly users who didn’t update to 2.1 within the first two weeks last August, just as there are users who won’t yet have updated to 2.2 now. The faster rate of updating this time around may be in part due to Adobe’s controversial move to Creative Cloud (see “Adobe Flies from Creative Suite into the Creative Cloud,” 8 May 2013) — people are thinking about alternatives to Photoshop. Regardless, it’s clear that Pixelmator is tremendously popular, and if we take the Pixelmator Team at their word about these downloads being updates and not demos (they offer their own trial version, since the Mac App Store won’t allow demos), we know they’re not counting dilettantes like me.

To sum up, then, I encourage everyone to take such numerical announcements not with a grain of salt — I have no reason to believe either Apple or the Pixelmator Team would be making this stuff up — but with a thought toward their context, whether it be stated, implied, or extrapolated.

[1]: http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2013/05/16Apples-App-Store-Marks-Historic-50-Billionth-Download.html
[2]: http://www.loopinsight.com/2013/05/16/pixelmator-2-2-tops-500000-downloads-in-one-week/
[3]: http://www.pixelmator.com/blog/2013/05/16/the-most-successful-release-ever-2/
[4]: http://thenextweb.com/google/2013/05/15/google-announces-900-million-activations-of-android-in-total-to-date/
[5]: http://www.pixelmator.com/blog/2012/08/29/the-most-successful-release-ever/
[6]: http://tidbits.com/article/13745