Why you should do your own mobile app store research before buying a phone

Have you heard the latest app store numbers? Apple(s aapl) and Google(s goog) now offer 800,000 or more apps each. Google’s store has crossed the 42 billion app download mark, while iTunes surpassed 50 billion. Big numbers, indeed. That means Microsoft(s msft) and BlackBerry(s bbry), both with far fewer apps, simply can’t offer the same experience. Or does it?

Google Play Android PhoneLast night I was reading a mobile app store report published by research firm Canalys on Thursday that suggests the “app gap” is still huge.

And when talking about overall available apps, it is. Microsoft has around 145,000 apps for its Windows Phone platform and BlackBerry offers 120,000. But when Canalys took a deeper dive, something didn’t sound right to me.

From the report:

“Of the top 50 free and top 50 paid apps featured in the Apple App Store and Google Play in the United States, based on their aggregated rankings over the first 20 days of May 2013, just 34% feature in either the Windows Phone store or BlackBerry World (as of 21 May 2013). The Windows Phone store contained 16 of the top 50 free Apple App Store applications, and 14 of the top 50 paid. It contained 22 of the top 50 free Google Play store’s applications, and 13 of the top 50 paid. In comparison, BlackBerry World contained BB10 versions of five of the top 50 free Apple App Store applications, and nine of the top 50 paid. It contained 11 of the top 50 free Google Play store applications, and 11 of the top 50 paid.

Dire numbers, no? Yet, we keep hearing from both Microsoft and BlackBerry that they now offer a majority of the top apps found in other app stores. Something doesn’t add up here.

I didn’t do extensive research but I figured I’d have a quick look for myself as to what top apps are missing from the Windows Phone and BlackBerry stores. I fired up the Google Play store to see the top paid apps and then looked for them online in these two stores. Note that I haven’t yet checked the iTunes App Store, mainly because I’m back to using Android for my primary phone and tablet; plus I’m using a Chromebook and can’t install the App Store.

Here’s what I found in my cursory look: Of the top 20 paid apps in Google Play that weren’t utility type applications, BlackBerry was missing two and Windows Phone lacked five; two of which were also missing on BlackBerry — Need for Speed, Most Wanted and Minecraft.


The latter strikes me as odd since Minecraft is one of the top indie game downloads on Microsoft’s Xbox 360. The four that were missing only from Windows Phone? World of Goo, Tapatalk, and TuneIn Radio Pro (TuneIn is available). That’s not too bad.

So why the low figures from Canalys? It has to do with those utilities I mentioned, which are fairly specific to Android’s more open take on apps: You can modify system settings, install third-party keyboards, etc. Several of the top paid Android apps missing on the other two platforms are titles like: Swiftkey Keyboard, Titanium Backup Pro, Nova Launcher Prime (a home screen customizer), Beautiful Widgets Pro, Root Explorer and ROM Manager, for example. Several of these are in the top 10, in fact. And guess what: None of these are available for iOS either.

One would get a completely different comparison if device-specific utilities were ignored and Canalys does admit it:

“The lists also include a small number of apps, such as ‘Find My iPhone’, that are specific to a particular ecosystem, as well as some utility apps, such as flashlight apps, for which similar offerings with equivalent functionality are available. Taking this into account, the picture can be made a little more optimistic, but the presence of clear gaps in their inventories cannot and should not be masked.”

Let’s face it: There are many ways to measure the “app gap” between platforms. It is real because each platform has its own requirements, APIs and corresponding app store. Unless we were all running cross-platform web apps — something that is poised to happen on desktops with Chrome — there will always be apps available for some mobile platforms and not others. And one could measure the top 20, 50 or whatever number they wanted across various stores to get different results.

If you’re researching a mobile platform, the app ecosystem is undoubtedly important. But the best person to determine if a platform’s ecosystem will work for you isn’t a third-party, a research firm or me. Figure out what apps you need to use on a regular basis and check the stores for yourself. You’ll likely find that the best opinion on this is your own.

This post was updated at 8:32am to correct the app count for Windows Phone as “Where’s My Water” was incorrectly shown to be unavailable.