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The applications market lacks transparency

Applications will get special attention this week at the International CTIA Wireless 2010 conference in Las Vegas. But aside from the lavish praise on this mobile channel, it is time to call for some critical scrutiny.

Since Apple launched its App Store in 2008, media, industry observers and Apple customers have bent over backwards to heap encomium after encomium on applications. The applications craze will have defined the closing years of the 2000s decade, pulling Google, Research In Motion, Nokia and independent players such as GetJar in the game.

Yet, for all the hoopla ? 150,000 applications in the Apple App Store, 30,000 in Google?s Android Market, 50,000 in GetJar ? not enough questions are asked of the efficacy of this mobile channel, either for content, marketing, retail or entertainment.

While ad agencies and advertisers repeatedly torment mobile ad networks, mobile Web site developers and mobile marketing firms over the performance of mobile Web banner ads and post-click-through measurement data, the same requirement for detail is not visited upon applications.

The irony is, even mildly sophisticated applications cost more than mobile Web sites. In some cases, the applications merely duplicate the mobile site, with the sole difference being the push versus pull concept.

No doubt applications serve a tremendous purpose in the mobile marketing and commerce ecosystem.

A download is an indication of loyalty to the brand. Repeated use allows the brand to better serve the application user with tailored content and offers. And applications are arguably the easiest, quickest way to interact with a brand on mobile without booting up the browser.

But for all the reasons stated above, there are counterpoints.

Data dump, not data dumb
Take the downloads issue. Apple is almost giddy-headed in its repeated chest-thumping about the number of downloads ? more than 3 billion downloads so far of the 150,000 applications in the Apple App Store.

Android is playing catch up, but Google is not shy of publicizing its numbers as it reaches for the top prize: making Android to mobile what Windows is to PC. Research In Motion has not much to boast of ? yet.

But do these players ever disclose data beyond Guinness World Record-worthy milestones to help agency media buyers and brands understand whether their investment in applications is paying off?

In other words, where are the data ? publicly available and utterly reliable ? that show the average life of an application in a certain category?

Why aren?t these questions being asked: What is the average number of visits to an application each month ? or, put simply, monthly unique user data? What is the average duration of those visits? How many deletions each month and after how many visits? Clicks on ad units within an application? How many applications downloaded by mobile device?

Even more questions: What works in an application for a media product versus a retail offering? How do paid applications perform versus free? What price points work best for paid applications? Do users respond to images on applications the way they do on mobile sites? Do they have the same patience for page load times, application versus mobile Web sites?

These data collected on an aggregate level will allow agencies and advertisers to make informed and smarter decisions on application ROI.

Strangely, not one major market researcher has called for more transparency in the applications space. Nor are agencies publicly voicing their concern. And application owners aren?t pushing for more competitive data from the application stores.

Clearly, they are operating in a highly competitive environment, but this much is clear: Apple, Google and the other players will just not share data.

So will it take another ?request for information? from the Federal Communications Commission to force the shark to open its jaw? That seems to be the only way the public these days seems to get insight into the applications policies of Apple, Google and the wireless carriers.

Case closed for openness
Closing one part of the ecosystem while requiring the other two ? mobile Web and SMS ? to maintain all semblance of transparency with the pertinent metrics for media-buying and marketing decisions is just not fair.

Apple, Google and others of its ilk are asking retailers, publishers and brands to spend tens of millions of dollars on products created uniquely for their proprietary application stores.

The least that application store owners can do to reward this marketer devotion is to offer data on an aggregate level that will bestow the same long-term legitimacy on applications as is granted to the mobile Web. 

With each new mobile device?s launch, more hysteria is created around the content possibilities.

The Apple iPad?s debut has launched another round of application development, this time giving hope to publishers worried over the future of the printed book. Google?s own tablet will spur similar innovation, and expect a zinger from Amazon?s new Kindle upgrade.

Applications as the glue that creates stickiness to mobile device will be the name of the game.

But is this simply an Apps Bubble or another viable mobile channel that can hold its own with the mobile Web? Only time and data will tell.