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Smartphone users spending more 'face time' on apps than voice calls or web browsing

iPhone users and social networking driving mobile apps usage

GSMA Intelligence recently commissioned a study* to help understand how smartphone users are interacting with mobile apps. The aim was to discover how mobile apps usage varied across smartphone platforms and also how apps, as compared to generic phone features, are starting to change user behaviour. The study was based on an analysis of usage across the four main smartphone platforms (iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and Symbian) in the US and UK during January 2011.

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The study uses the concept of 'face time' to measure how long users actively engage with various smartphone features. It found that apps accounted for an average of 667 minutes of face time per user per month, only slightly less than the time spent on messaging (671 minutes), and well ahead of both voice calling (531 minutes) and web browsing (422 minutes). This means, for example, that smartphone users are spending 37 percent less time surfing the web using a mobile browser than using apps (see chart).

However, while apps potentially threaten the mobile operators' current position at the heart of the mobile value chain, the study found that the number of apps actually being used is still relatively low. The average smartphone user in the study added just 2.5 new apps per month (net), while 37 percent of users added no new apps at all. Another finding was that most smartphone face time related to apps and features already present on the device platform (voice, messaging, browsing etc.) rather than the so-called 'add-on' apps – features that the device-maker, operator or user has installed on top of the OS. Add-on apps accounted for 20 percent of face time minutes, but a slightly greater proportion of smartphone data traffic (30 percent).

iPhone users generated the most data traffic, consuming 422MB per user per month - over 200 percent more than Android users (133MB) and compared to just 36MB via BlackBerry and 34MB via Symbian. iPhone users also led the way in the proportion of face time dedicated to add-on apps at 44 percent, compared to 37 percent for Android, 24 percent for Symbian and 18 percent for BlackBerry. The study found that iPhone and Android users access 15 different apps per month on average, almost twice as many as BlackBerry and Symbian users, a trend attributed to the greater popularity of the iPhone and Android app stores.

Social media (such as Facebook and Twitter) was the most popular apps category, accounting for 29 percent of apps face time (and likely to be significantly higher if browser-based social-networking is taken into account). Gaming and multimedia accounted for 22 percent and 15 percent, respectively. Apps in these latter categories accounted for a disproportionately higher amount of face time. The study found, for example, that less than half (45 percent) of smartphone users play games on a monthly basis but these users spend 295 minutes per month on gaming.

The most installed add-on apps are YouTube (#1), Facebook (#2) and Quickoffice (#3), which top the list due to them being preinstalled on many device platforms. However, in terms of active monthly users, the top three was slightly different: Facebook (#1), YouTube (#2) and Twitter (#3), reflecting the high levels of social networking face time.

In general, users in the US were found to spend more time using their smartphones than users in the UK. In a benchmark of individual operators based on Android users (the only platform used by all operators in both countries) T-Mobile USA was found to have the highest average minutes of usage for "online" apps (browser, VoIP, Email, IM, Internet-connected native apps etc.), while T-Mobile UK scored the highest for "offline" use (voice, SMS and non-Internet-connected native apps).

The usage trends highlighted in the study provide insight for operators as they seek to increase smartphone penetration levels. The UK market-leader, Everything Everywhere, noted that 82 percent of new contract subscribers in the last quarter (Q4 2010) bought smartphones, up from 50 percent a year ago. US market leader Verizon Wireless noted that 75 percent of its contract net additions were smartphone buyers in the same quarter; this meant that 26 percent of Verizon's total contract customer base were smartphone users at the end of last year, up from 15 percent at year-end 2009. It has forecast it will pass the 50 percent smartphone penetration mark before the end of 2011.

Matt Ablott, Analyst, GSMA Intelligence:

While apps are a hot topic in the industry, our study shows that this area is still at a relatively early stage of development, suggesting the full impact of the mobile apps revolution has yet to be felt. Across all the main smartphone platforms, users still spend the most time using legacy phone features with 'add-on' apps accounting for just a fifth of face time. In most cases users appear comfortable with the OS features provided (SMS, browser etc.) and see no need to download alternatives or are unaware alternatives exist (a major exception occurs on the Symbian platform where 33 percent of users have download Opera as an alternative browser). However, it is also clear that the popularity of social media and mobile gaming is capturing an increasing share of face time and this trend is set to continue in line with rising smartphone penetration. These types of 'add-on' apps provide access to more feature rich multimedia content and account for a disproportionate share of mobile data usage (30 percent and rising fast). This creates a double-edged sword for operators in developed markets such as the US and UK: consumers are accessing more and more mobile data but operators will need to effectively monetise this growth in order to generate much-needed additional revenue. In the US, most operators are already switching from 'all you can eat' data tariffs to metered usage in order to cost-effectively support the new user trends triggered by the rise in smartphones and mobile apps.

Smartphone usage activity per category
Source: GSMA Intelligence, Zokem

* The research was conducted by GSMA Intelligence and Zokem. It was based on an analysis of more than 2,100 smartphone users (iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and Symbian) in the US and UK during January 2011. All research data was captured with on-device metering from the Zokem Mobile Life panels. Currently the panel consists 29 percent of iPhone users, 45 percent Android users, 18 percent BlackBerry users, and 8 percent Symbian users, reflecting approximately the current sales distribution of smartphones in the combined US/UK market. The US/UK panel has a statistically significant number of users from all smartphone platforms.

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