Poll: What’s the “App Lock In” Cost on Smartphones?

Over the past three months, Research In Motion (s rimm), Nokia (s nok) and Microsoft (s msft) have all introduced new smartphone operating systems to compete with those from Apple (s aapl) and Google (s goog). Each has raised the bar over prior offerings in an effort to keep consumers from turning to the iPhone or the many different Android handsets available. As shown in our reviews of the BlackBerry Torch and the Nokia N8, both have finally become optimized for touchscreens. And while Windows Phone 7 devices won’t ship until next month, the user interface feels less like a copy of Apple’s iOS and more of a refreshing new approach to how a smartphone should be used. So all three new platforms are sure to grab new customers, right? That depends on how much money consumers have invested in apps for their Apple and Google phones.

The iTunes App Store launched in 2008, and since then, it and Google’s Android Market, account for a staggering 7.8 billion mobile app downloads. To be sure, consumers download a far greater number of free apps than paid apps. Our own infographic of Android’s growth, which notably comes at the expense of Nokia, RIM and Microsoft, shows that of the 8 – 9 apps downloaded per month on iOS or Android devices, only 20 percent or fewer are actually paid apps. Even so, a little back-of-the-envelope math shows an estimate of 1.5 billion total paid apps for both Apple and Google devices in the past two years. Such large numbers can yield big returns; earlier this year, Steve Jobs said that Apple payouts to third-party iOS developers have topped $1 billion.

Aside from the high-level numbers of mobile app sales and total developer revenues, however, the concept of investing in a platform is a factor at the individual consumer level too. When I deliberated over a move from an iPhone to a Google Nexus One, for example, two of my decision points centered around apps. First: are the apps that I use and need the most available on Android? And second, is a switch between platforms worth it considering how much money I’d spent on iOS apps prior?

These days, many of the major apps are available across multiple handset operating systems, but some are either found only on the top platforms or take a long time before appearing on others. In my case, I was able to salvage my iOS app investment on both an iPod touch and iPad device. But even if your fave apps are available on a new platform, you typically have to pay a second time around.

While tool sets and support drive decisions on what devices to code for, developers are keenly watching sales figures and momentum. Last month, a Nielsen survey found that the average iPhone user has 40 apps, more than double the 14 apps found on the average BlackBerry device. Given these numbers, why build an app for a BlackBerry instead of offering it to the app-happy Apple crowd?

RIM, Nokia and Microsoft all know that Apple and Google devices have the attention of developers because of this situation, and all three are trying to woo programmers with multi-million dollar contests and enhancements to application stores and tool sets. Over time, that may help bring more high-quality apps to these platforms, as will cross-platform tools such as Nokia’s Qt.

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As all three contenders try to curb the iOS and Android “app-slosion” however, the incumbents continue to roll with download after download on a daily basis. As that happens, consumers are investing more in platforms that could make it difficult to walk away from them.

I haven’t seen any studies yet on what the magic investment number is: How much does a consumer spend on apps before deciding to stick with a mobile device platform due to the investment? In light of that, maybe we can start such research now with an informal poll. What’s the limit on smartphone apps before you’d be held back from switching to a new handset platform?

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