Apple has the largest app store by a long shot: Currently iPhone users can choose from 350,000 apps. But how many apps do people really use -- and should the size of the Apple App Store sway your next smartphone purchase? It shouldn't.
A PCWorld analysis of the top apps on competing smartphone app stores reveals that the majority of the iPhone's most popular apps are also available on Android, Windows Phone 7, Palm, RIM BlackBerry, and Nokia phones. This dispels the smartphone buyers' myth that claims: "The bigger the app store, the better the phone."
After reviewing the top 35 iPhone apps, we found that a larger store doesn't always win, especially when it comes to core and popular apps. For example, Google's Android Market, currently a little more than half the size of Apple's App Store (200,000 apps), has the same selection of popular apps -- with the exception of games. Even in the newer and less-populated app stores such as Microsoft's Windows Phone Marketplace (11,500 apps), you can get most of the same top apps.
Let the Best Platform Win
Looking at the all-time top 35 apps for the Apple platform, Android comes closest to matching what's available in the Apple App Store. Android lacks three popular iPhone apps: Cro-Mag Rally, Netflix, and StickWars. Android does offer the Blockbuster rental app, but that app requires you to download an entire film before watching it (as opposed to the iPhone Netflix app, which allows you to stream movies).
The Windows Phone 7 platform lacks eight top iPhone apps, most notably Google Earth, the utility Bump, and games such as Tap Tap Revenge. The Nokia Ovi Store is missing 11 top apps (mostly games); BlackBerry App World lacks 13, and the Palm App Catalog is missing 14.
Our Comparison Methodology
We compared Apple's App Store with Google's Android Market, Research In Motion's BlackBerry App World, Nokia's Ovi Store, Palm's App Catalog, and Microsoft's Windows Phone Marketplace.
We started with Apple's App Store list of the most downloaded apps of all time. From that list, we selected the top 10 paid apps, paid games, free apps, and free games, removed the duplicates, and added a couple of all-time favorites -- ending up with a list of the 35 most downloaded iOS apps of all time. Then we compared that list with available apps for competing smartphones.
iPhone Fun and Games
Apple does have the upper hand when it comes to games -- and that's no small matter. According to Nielsen Media Research, games are the most popular app category, with 61 percent of surveyed smartphone owners having run a game app on their handset in the past 30 days.
For smartphone owners uninterested in games, however, the competition evens out.
Looking at Nielsen's list of the most popular nongame categories (weather, maps/search, social networking, music, news, and entertainment), nearly all smartphone platforms offer the same or equivalent apps.
For example, according to the Nielsen study, weather apps rank as the most popular all-time nongame category, no matter the platform. Apple offers the Weather Channel app -- and that same app is available on every competing smartphone platform. Also available on all platforms are items such as the Facebook app, Google Maps (part of Google's Mobile Apps suite), the Pandora streaming-music app (equivalents are available for the Ovi and Window Phone 7 stores), and the entertainment and shopping app Yelp.
In comparison with a Top 20 list of Apple iOS apps that aren't games, Android offers 19 identical or similar apps. Windows Phone 7 is missing three, Palm lacks six, and Nokia and BlackBerry both lack seven.
BlackBerry and Palm smartphones offer the least amount of identical or comparable Top 35 game and nongame iPhone apps.
App Category Breakdown
Games: If you're addicted to Angry Birds, the only big no-no for you would be the BlackBerry platform (the game is arriving on Windows Phone 7 in May). Several other prominent titles -- such as Bejeweled, Doodle Jump, and Flight Control -- are also available for most platforms; iOS has a few exclusives, such as Cro-Mag Rally and Cut The Rope (copycat games aside).
Business apps: Serious smartphone shoppers seeking serious apps have a much wider choice. For example, if you want to view and edit Microsoft Office documents, you can get an app for that on all the platforms in this comparison. One exception is the Bump contact-sharing app, which is available only for iOS and Android.
Music and audio: If you want to listen to online radio, Pandora is available for all platforms, with the exception of Nokia and Windows Phone 7 handsets. There you can get Slacker Radio as an alternative. If you want to chat with Skype buddies, you can also achieve that across all platforms, via an official app or Fring (an equivalent).
Productivity and social media: Monitoring calories or tracking your flight? Check -- you can do so with iOS, BlackBerry, Android, Nokia, Palm, and Windows Phone 7. Facebook and Twitter? Check. Weather and Yelp? Check. Bible reading? No problem. You can pretty much find the same or equivalent app on all modern smartphones, regardless of brand and operating system.
Entertainment: Your options narrow a bit when you are looking for other popular apps. For example, you can't get the official Amazon Kindle app on a Nokia or Palm smartphone. Netflix is limited to iOS and Windows Phone 7. And Flixster and IMDb are not available on Nokia smartphones.
Choosing the Best Smartphone
For years Apple has marketed the iPhone by emphasizing its slick apps, with the mantra "There's an app for that." But shoppers don't have to fear being deprived of mobile apps should they select a competing phone.
Our prediction is that the playing field will continue to level out when it comes to available cross-platform apps. Apple's App Store and the Android Market may always be top dogs in terms of app variety. But as the cliché goes, it's all about quality, not quantity -- and that's true for both apps and hardware.