Who's really using web apps, and why?

In my work at Rubicon, we spend much of our time helping tech companies with strategy and product planning. One recurring theme is the impact of web applications. We help web app companies figure out their customers and product plans, and we help traditional tech companies understand web apps and what to do about them.

As we do this work, we repeatedly run into a lack of basic information about how web apps are being used -- how many people use them, who uses them, which apps they use, and so on. There's a lot of anecdotal information from individual web companies on how they're doing, but almost nothing on the usage of web apps across the industry as a whole.

So we decided to fill that hole. This summer we did a survey of about 2,000 US adult PC owners on their usage of web applications. We released the results this morning at the AjaxWorld conference. Some highlights:

--37% of US home PC owners use at least one web application on a regular basis. Usage has already spread far beyond early adopters.

--Usage varies dramatically by app category. E-mail and games are the two most popular web app categories, but some other categories (such as online word processing) have very low adoption so far.

--College students are more enthusiastic adopters of web apps than non-students. More than 50% of college students use at least one web app regularly.

To me, the study was a good reminder of the practicality of most PC users. Although we in the industry worry a lot about the technical distinctions between things like web apps and packaged applications, most users don't care. They just want to solve their problems and get on with their lives. If a web app is better or cheaper than a packaged app, they will use it. If it isn't better in some way, they won't.

If you're working at a web app company and want to create a popular service, be sure you solve a real world problem that people care about. The doors are wide open if you do that.

If you work at a traditional software company and think you're immune to competition from web apps, or that it'll take years for them to affect you, you're living in fantasyland. For about 70% of US PC owners, there are no significant barriers to adoption of web apps.

There's a lot more analysis (and graphs of the findings) in the full report on the Rubicon website. Check it out here.

And there's some interesting commentary about the study here and here and here and here.


sinnick said...

Very interesting, Mike.

What implication do you think these results have on the mobile application industry?

Anonymous said...

For me a weeb app versus traditional app is very simple. If I trust the app to be virus free and will be installing and using on my own computer I go traditional. I am however often using other people comp[uter either at work or otherwise. In thoose case web apps are a great alternative. I wonder if the stundets using web apps are using library computers, etc.

Also for certain types of application where I am concerned about spyware/adware and/or viruses I am very reluctant to download anything but will often try a web based application. For example I have recently been experimenting with VOIP telephoney. I am limiting my experimentaion to companies that do not require me to download any application to my PC but rather give web based control over featuyre settings, etc.

Also if I suspect that marketing/advertising is part of any free application I will try it if web based but not go so far as to download onto my PC. Its really for me a matter of trust; also if it requires being online for functionality I guess I prefer web based to downloading.

Anonymous said...


I am wondering. Do you consider downloaded application that require connection to operate to be 'web based.' I was reading in the article about security concerns. I believe that it is these sort of application that give people concerns more so than 100% web based.

For example I know people who use google maps who would not consider downloading google earth. They simple so not like the idea of an icon on there desktop and software installed. Pretty much everyone I know will log into any website if absolutely nothing most be downloaded.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reference!

Antoine said...

Nice post Mike, thanks for another good thinker.

I'm also under the idea that people will use whatever is best, whether it is web-app or not. I do wonder though if too many web apps falter because they are trying so hard to be desktop apps in a browser, rather than embracing fully the paradigm of a near-always-connected state.

The one of the areas that I would love to see web apps grow up in though is in accessiblity. Too many of them are dragged down by so much java script that it litereally takes rebuilding an application to make something that is more friendly to those without IE7/FF2.

Its still early for web apps though. I'd bet most could fare even better if they had mobile aspects to them too. But even then, barriers to adoption will be just as present as they are now.

Rachel Luxemburg said...

Colleges and universities these days have well-stocked computer labs, but the computers themselves are very locked-down and students generally cannot install anything on them without prior approval from campus IT. I wonder if that fact contributes to the rate of web application adoption by college students?

Anonymous said...

@fiat lux: I'm sure that this is an important factor, but not the only one: students have various "work stations". They use their own notebook at home, pc's in libraries, the pc at their hometown (when visiting parents at the weekends), or they use the pc of a friend... So web apps are really comfortable because you don't waste time with endless installations.
I'm a student myself and I think I'm not the only one enjoying this...

Anonymous said...

True web apps and regular apps are both accepted by the masses without security concerns for the most part. It is the hybrid half web/half installed that get the concerns. These tend to be suspected of spyware /adware. They also tend to run clunckily without a very good/fast connection.

i would choose a web app so that I can log in from any location; library, friends computer, etc. if i have to install something on my PC I need a really good reason before there should be any communications between the software and a server.

lets keep web apps 100% in the browser and we will see increased uptake.