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Population Explosion—How to Find the Real Deal

Mobile Apps

The rapid growth of mobile (read: smartphone) apps on the market has resulted in a confusing array of choices for consumers. Unfortunately, that confusion isn’t likely to be cleared up any time soon as new products and more developers try to tap into the burgeoning marketplace.

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Ryan Balderas

Mobile apps can do everything from helping you to watch your waistline to starting your car from miles away. Increasingly, apps—a catchall term for shortcuts and programs that users download to perform specific functions—are how we get things done online.

When you enter an app store, you can find tens of thousands of apps, which are sorted into only a few categories. It’s nearly impossible to distinguish the real thing from low-quality knockoffs, and that’s a real problem for consumers.

GET WITH THE PROGRAM. Apps were introduced to mainstream users in June 2008, when Apple launched its iPhone and App Store. Since then, Apple customers have downloaded 4 billion apps. The company’s library now includes more than 200,000 titles, and about 260 new apps are added every day. Google’s 2-year-old Android Market, the second-largest mobile app store, has 50,000 titles in stock and is catching up fast.

Smaller outlets include Research in Motion’s (RIM) BlackBerry Store, Microsoft’s Windows Marketplace for Mobile and Nokia’s Ovi Store. And with phone manufacturers and service providers rolling out their own stores, there could be more than a dozen retail app outlets by the end of 2010.

A lot of options? You bet. But you should keep in mind that apps aren’t compatible from system to system. For example, if you have an iPhone and you switch to an Android phone, you must start over and download—and perhaps pay for—Android versions of your apps, even if you stay with the same carrier. You can transfer apps from one carrier to another if you keep the same phone. But if you switch phones, it’s a different story: A new G1 phone, for example, might not support all of the apps that you used on an HTC Droid Incredible, because the G1 runs a different version of Android.

Although many apps are free, not all are full versions. About half of the top-ranked free titles at Apple’s App Store at press time were freemiums—limited versions that are created to entice consumers to buy the full-featured versions or that require incremental purchases as you use them. The average price of full-featured premium apps starts at about $2.50, according to Distimo, which analyzes the app industry.

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That’s a pretty low price, but the costs add up the more you build your apps inventory. And not all apps are low-priced: Ultra-premium apps are priced as high as $1,000. They include apps that are designed to help students study for the bar exam or that deliver camera feeds to security personnel.

The apps craze created a gold-rush mentality among app developers, which has resulted in a market that teems with novelty apps and third-rate imitations. “The problem is just that in any category, you’re now looking at 20,000 apps or more,” says Carl Howe of market research firm Yankee Group. Howe might be overstating but not by a lot. For example, a search for “maps” in Apple’s App Store returns more than 2,500 results.

The avalanche of apps isn’t likely to abate until the craze cools a bit and consumers realize that they need only a handful of valuable apps in each category. Because so many knockoffs are now on the market, it’s easy to download an inferior app. That’s irritating when the app is free, but it’s more vexing when the app costs a few dollars. Google allows Android Market users to return an app for a full refund within 24 hours of purchase. Getting a refund from other stores, however, often requires you to send multiple e-mails or make numerous phone calls.

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