Mobile App Discovery Is a Developer Problem, Not a Consumer Problem

[Editor’s note: Charles Hudson is a co-author on our Inside Virtual Goods series of industry reports, a co-founder of Android game developer Bionic Panda Games and a partner at SoftTech VC. This blog post was originally published on his site here.]

In my dual roles as a Venture Partner at SoftTech VC and Co-Founder of Bionic Panda Games, I’ve met with a bunch of companies and teams who are focusing on trying to solve the problem of mobile application discovery. Simply put, the problem (as articulated by people trying to solve it) is that there are many more interesting applications out there than the typical consumer can find on his or her own. If you look at the number of apps in the Apple or Android markets, that’s probably true – no consumer can be fully aware of everything out there that could be of interest.

By and large, the teams I’ve met are incredibly smart, clever teams of people who I think will impact the world of mobile applications in positive ways. But after having met with a handful of really great folks working in this space, I’m becoming convinced that application discovery is a bigger problem for those applications looking to get discovered than it is for consumers looking for useful or entertaining applications. Three things I’d like to throw out there for discussion:

1. There is a lot of mobile application discovery that happens face-to-face in the real world and will probably never show up in your application analytics system. If you’ve gone out in a major city lately, I’m sure you’ve seen this happen. Someone pulls out a phone and shows off an application. Someone else at the table says, “Wow, that’s a cool application – I’m going to get it right now.” And that person starts downloading the application. That’s the beauty of the the combination of app stores, smartphones, and reasonably good data connections – if you find a new application you want, you can get it nearly instantly. No more waiting until you get home to have a friend invite you or send you an email. Just grab the app in context and grow. I’m not sure that there’s an opportunity for an app to help facilitate that face-to-face communication.

To most analytics systems, these installs will look largely organic (someone just installed your app and it didn’t come from a trackable link of any sort) even though they aren’t. And, as a developer, it’s kind of hard to know how often this is happening for any given application. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – lots of people will instantly install applications that their friends are using when this discovery happens face-to-face as your friend can often tell you (in his or her own words) why he or she likes the application and how he or she uses it. That counts for a lot for most people.

2. Most consumers are not actively looking for new applications to download, but will download them in order to get something else or based on the recommendation of a friend. I just don’t think most people sit around thinking about applications to discover. Most people are busy doing other things – reading, playing with the applications they already have, chatting with friends, etc. However, as I mentioned above, I do think that there is value in knowing what applications your social graph is using. For example, if you’re trying to make a decision on installing an app with strong network effects (any social networking or communications application, for example), knowing what your friends use has real value. For example, if most of your friends have standardized on using a particular location-sharing, photo-sharing, social networking, or other social application, knowing that can and probably should influence your choice of application to use.

The other use case is the incentivized install use case. If people are using an application and can get a reward in that application for downloading or installing someone else’s application, it shouldn’t be surprising that they are willing to do so – installing an application doesn’t really cost most users anything (other than the space on the device and the time required to install it) and the act of installing an application is a known behavior.

3. Open question – will consumers fire up an application to help them find other applications? One question I have is around how application discovery is delivered as a product. A number of the products in the space today involve opening or installing an application in order to discover additional applications to use. I am not sure this is the model that consumers want, but it’s still too early to tell.

Despite everything I’ve said above, application discovery is a problem for application developers. It’s really just a subset of the marketing challenge we all face in standing out in a sea of tens of thousands of applications that exist in app stores – being discovered is a good way to grow an application and absolutely essential in the growth plans of many companies.