The Real Cost Of Free Apps

The Real Cost Of Free Apps

You may want to think twice before you download that free app.

Data usage is an issue close to every smartphone owner’s hearts. The ease with which we can exceed our monthly data allowance is becoming even greater, as our smartphones become our one stop shop for everything.

While you may already be savvy with your data saving habits by using Wi-Fi where you can, using web browsers that compress data usage, or avoiding video and music streaming apps and websites, there is another often overlooked cause of high data usage that flies under the radar. Even after taking all of these precautions, you are left scratching your head as to why your data usage is so high.

The culprit may in fact be the free apps installed on your phone. While forgoing the $0.99 app in favour of a free version seems like a great deal, it could be costing you more in not only data usage but battery drain as well.

According to a recent survey, 93 % of the apps made by Android developers are free, while 46% of iOS apps are free. However, the term ‘free’ is relative. While you don’t pay to download the app itself, many apps are freemiums – free to play, but monetized by ads – with an ad-free version available for a fee.

The issue is in the ads.

In a study done in partnership between Microsoft and Purdue (“Fine Grained Energy Accounting on Smartphones with Eprof“), the true cost of freemium apps are revealed. Eprof is a specially developed tool used to analyze 21 Android and Windows Mobile applications’ power usage in addition to an analysis of data use over a 3G connection for 5 popular Android applications, which include the stock Android web browser, Angry Birds, The New York Times, Mapquest and Chess Free.

The research found that in-app advertising can comprise as much as 65% to 75% of an application’s energy consumption as well as the majority of data usage incurred by the app. In the case of Angry Birds, the core application processes only took up 18% of an application’s energy needs. Third-party ad display, analytics and other related activities accounted for about 45%.

The reason why the majority of power consumption and data usage is found within in-app advertising, is that it requires a steady “3G Tail” or constant communication between the app and the ad server in refreshing the ad and targeting the ad based on demographic and location, among other things.

While iOS applications were not included, the study provides a good indication as to the potential for freemium apps (which are also found in the App Store) to utilise a great deal of power and data for non essential activities i.e. in-app ads.

The next time you find yourself over your data limit, take a look at the free apps installed on your device. If they are monetized by ads, chances are this will be a contributor to high data usage.

So, even though these “free” apps are cheaper than their paid (and usually ad free) counterparts, this cost saving is negated by the increased data and power usage needed by the app to supplement the in-app advertising. In the long run that $0.99 app might just be a better deal than the free version.