Do Mobile Apps Create Lock-in?

Written by Jason Grigsby on

A core assumption that many have is that mobile apps create lock-in. I’m not sure.

The assumption is based on lessons from the platform battle in the PC market where the amount of software that someone had purchased was a barrier to switching platforms. TidBITs summarizes well how this idea applies to mobile, and the iPhone in particular:

Apple is applying lessons learned from the Macintosh world to the mobile phone industry, and using the App Store and its applications as a way of generating platform lock-in on top of AT&T’s contractual carrier lock-in.

Platform lock-in occurs when a customer becomes committed primarily to the phone’s software, as opposed to its carrier’s service. If you’ve bought $200 worth of applications for your smartphone, you’re much less likely to switch to a different model in the future. In short, high spending on smartphone apps ensures long-term platform loyalty.

This reasoning was absolutely true when it came to the PC market. If you had invested several hundred if not thousands of dollars into software like Photoshop and Office on one platform, you were unlikely to switch to another.

However, there are many ways the mobile market doesn’t resemble the PC market, and I believe this is one of them.

I recently asked the audience a Mobile Portland to raise their hands if they used more than one third-party application on their phone daily. Everyone raised their hand.

Then I gradually increased the number.

Two? Three? Five?

By the time I got to five, less than half the audience had their hands up. When I asked who used ten or more third party apps on a daily basis, only one person still had his hand up.

This was an audience of heavy mobile users and no one was using more than a handful of apps on a regular basis. My own list of apps I use daily looks like this:

App Description

Total $17.97
Twitter for iPhone Twitter client Free
Reeder RSS Reader $2.99
Instapaper Offline reading $4.99
Facebook Facebook client Free
1Password Encrypted Password Storage $9.99

You could reasonably argue that there are a couple of other apps that I use occasionally plus whatever my game du jour is (currently Angry Birds), but even after adding those in, the total cost of the apps I regularly use is no more than $30.

My suspicion is that many people are in the same boat. Because the price of apps are so low, the switching costs are also lower.

There are some specialized apps that could make switching costs higher. For example, a doctor who had paid $299 for the Lexi-COMPLETE medical reference is probably going to think twice before switching smartphone platforms.

This is one of the reasons why enterprise application development is so important to every platform and why Blackberry will be more difficult to unseat than people think. Specialized software is the one area where higher prices and the amount of installed software can create lock-in.

Jason Grigsby

Jason Grigsby is one of the co-founders of Cloud Four, Mobile Portland and Responsive Field Day. He is the author of Progressive Web Apps from A Book Apart. Follow him at @grigs.

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It’s not the price of but the availability of such apps that is the barrier to switching. For example, let us say you decided to switch to BlackBerry. There is no 1Password for BlackBerry so you would have to find a different solution to that problem. And the more connected your apps are the harder that switch is as you need to not only find a mobile replacement but also a desktop/web replacement as well (and move all your data). I wouldn’t say it is lock-in, but I would definitely say apps are a barrier to switching,

Elia Freedman


Yes, availability of apps is an issue, but I don’t think it is as big as it seems for most people.

What started my thought down this path was beginning to think about switching to Android and realizing that the apps I used most frequently had comparable versions on Android including 1Password.

But a better thing to do is just ask people. I’ve been randomly asking people over the last few months what apps they use on a daily basis.

The answer is usually a handful of apps dominated by the common ones like Facebook and Twitter. One person might have a sports news app. Another might have stocks. But there is usually only one app if any that you can’t find a comparable solution on another platform.

Now this isn’t scientific by any means. Nor does a “comparable” app necessarily mean one that the person will like or be satisfied with.

But the point of the article stands. Lots of media coverage overstates this as a reason why people will stay locked into platform.

Finally, this is the first leg of a chair I’m building to argue that there are better markets than the PC market to compare phones to.

Almost kept me from switching to Android. Had songs from itunes and a few apps. Thankfully Apple let the songs be purchased for $.30 and I wasn’t too attached to the apps. My brother on the other hand (a worship pastor at a large church) had hundreds of songs and lots of apps and definitely didn’t want to make the switch in light of that investment… And, he’s glad he didn’t because he loves his iPhone4… But that’s a different post.

From my experience, most apps don’t have a very long shelf life so most apps people buy on their phones they don’t care about very soon after they’ve purchased them. Out of 100 apps, maybe they have to re-buy 6 of them that they really want to keep? I switched from iphone to Android and I only repurchased a dozen apps maybe out of the 300 or so I had. I think Android will surpass the iPhone OS very soon and the migration will be large and swift.

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