It’s been an important year for apps, those chicklet-sized, colorful squares on your smartphone, not just because the companies behind them continued to command multi-billion dollar valuations, but because of their increasing impact on offline life. A few years ago, the apps we couldn’t live without were casually addictive games that created a small black hole in our daily commute. Now apps are playing the role of match-maker (Tinder), or helping us lose weight and keep it off (MyFitnessPal) or acting the part of digital concierge when it’s late and we really need a cab (Uber). As we rely on apps more and more, the Big Data plumbing behind them is helping marketers and advertisers get a better idea, for better or worse, of who we are.
Here, following a snap poll of more than 30 staffers at Forbes, is a list of the 13 apps we couldn’t live without in 2013. I asked my colleagues to send me two or three apps they absolutely loved and couldn’t imagine not using in this past year, and ranked them based on the names that got called out the most.
As a bonus, I sent the ranked list over to Flurry, the advertising firm whose analytics tool reaches more than 1.2 billion smartphones around the world. (Full findings and methodology at the bottom of this post) Assuming Flurry’s research director could personify Forbes’ reporters as a single psychographic profile, how would advertisers want to target us — who would we be? It turns out that the apps we couldn’t live without in 2013 defined us as – drumroll please – a bunch of personal finance geeks.
That’s largely because of the app that ranked easily at the top of our list:
Venmo may not have commanded the hype of of other apps this past year, but it’s name came up again and again among smartphones users at Forbes. The free app allows you to exchange payments with people you know via your smartphone, linking to your Facebook friends and email contacts, as well as your bank account. Opt to give someone enough trust and they can withdraw money directly from your account, through the app. You can also build up a pile of cash in your Venmo account, so that next time you head out to dinner with friends it’s fairly easy to split the bill or pay someone back. “Venmo is everything people have ever wanted from payment tech,” said Forbes entrepreneurs writer J.J. Colao. “Solves the dinner-split problem like no other.” Venmo is owned by payment processing company Braintree, itself a subsidiary of eBay.
Facebook didn’t come up once in our apps poll, but Instagram did on multiple occasions. When it comes to sharing photos through our phones, we prefer the Sierra-filtered realm of the app that Facebook bought for $1 billion in late 2012. With 150 million monthly active users sharing 16 billion photos a day, Instagram recently added a feature that gives users more control over who sees their photos. Instead of “posting” a photo to your entire network, you can “send” it to between on and 15 people. Forbes contributor Julie Ask is skeptical, and called it a catch-up move by Instagram against popular messaging apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat.
The addictive qualities of this matchmaking app together with its potentially life-altering consequences drove it to the top of our list. Tinder lets users trawl through photos of other singles on their smartphone, swiping the ones they like to the right and those they don’t to the left. If two people swipe each other to the right, Tinder notifies them of their “match.” Part of the appeal is never knowing about all those left swipes. Quartz, which suggested that future kids will ask their parents which app they met in, reports that in some countries Tinder is used by more than 1% of the population. The app is free, but its founders have talked to Forbes about moving into business networking as a premium service.
Never mind apps, USA Today recently named Uber tech company of the year, saying it promised “massive shifts in real-life behavior.” The car-for-hire app finds a driver within your vicinity and, assuming you’re in a metropolis, can often send it to your doorstep within minutes. Transportation authorities have accused the company of operating an illegal taxicab operation, yet it still managed to raise $258 million from Google Ventures and TPG Investments at a $3.5 billion valuation in August, and is reportedly set to book $125 million in sales for 2013. Uber’s CEO recently hinted the startup could branch into delivery services.
This was the first app to successfully build up an enormous data bank of maps and traffic reports through crowdsourcing. Bought by Google for $1 billion earlier this year, Waze created a highly accurate navigation services by tracking the GPS coordinates of its users. It also diverts them away from built up traffic when enough of them report in that they’re stuck in gridlock. Forbes’ leadership editor Fred Allen blogged about Waze before all the hype.
In the increasingly crowded market for messaging apps, WhatsApp was the first to offer a free texting service that synched with your mobile number and address book so that you didn’t have to register with a username. Founded in 2009 by ex-Yahoo engineers, it now has 400 million active users to whom it charges an annual subscription of $1 (in the U.S.) after one free year. Our staffers have been using it to avoid sky-high texting charges when communicating with friends and colleagues overseas.
At first dismissed as a faddish, sexting app, some say Snapchat has been leading the nascent movement for ephemeral messaging and mobile browsing, an increasingly viable option for those who don’t see the need to leave a potentially damaging, digital trail behind everything they do and say online. The app lets you share photos overlaid with text and drawings to one or more friends, before it deletes itself after a few seconds. The startup’s notoriety deepened in November after it reportedly turned down a $3 billion takeover offer from Facebook, before taking $50 million in funding from a hedge fund that valued it at $2 billion.
The music streaming services which recently got the rights to play Led Zeppelin’s catalogue of 20 million songs has been going strong since 2008, sealing up a major partnership with Facebook in 2010 and more recently with the mobile calling and messaging service Tango. The app claims to have 6 million paying subscribers and more than 24 million monthly active users.
GroupMe is not as wide-spread as other popular messaging apps like Kik or KakaoTalk, but it is still used regularly be several staffers at Forbes, and has been going since 2010. Microsoft-owned Skype bought the startup in August 2011 for a reported $80 million. Like WhatsApp and other messaging services, GroupMe allows you to make private chat rooms with friends for on the fly messaging.
This publicly-traded music streaming service has 71 million monthly active users and accounts to 70% of Internet radio listening, according to a recent story by Forbes tech reporter Connie Guglielmo. The Oakland,Calif.-based startup has been challenged by the potential, existential threat of Apple’s iTunes radio and bickering with artists over royalty payments.
For anyone who has found their addiction to Candy Crush and Angry Birds on the wane, never fear, because another habit-forming mobile app is here. Multiple Forbes staffers pointed to QuizUp as an app that they launched again and again through 2013. In it, you compete with friends and and total strangers in trivia matches based around a number of different topics. The free app is only available on iOS, though Android version is reportedly coming in January.
Music is a popular pursuit among Forbes staffers, hence why Shazam also ranked highly among our picks. The app uses the phone’s build-in microphone to recognize and identify a song being played. In July Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim put $40 million into the app, laying the groundwork for it to be pre-installed on millions of smartphones in Latin America. A recent update means you can now keep Shazam’s recognition feature on all the time, so that any music or audio you listen to throughout the day or while in a club, is named and recorded on a list.
For anyone that works in a newsroom, Twitter has become an indispensable tool for keeping up with what’s breaking — or going viral. “Instapaper and Twitter have changed the way I consume news this year,” Forbes’ video producer Dikenta Dike says. The social networking giant pulled of a successful IPO on Nov. 7 that valued it at more than $30 billion. Its mobile service recently made a small but important tweak, that shows the service putting more emphasis on photo-sharing: compose a tweet and its iOS app will now bring up your photo gallery instead of a keyboard.
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Flurry’s research director Mary Ellen Gordon went through a much longer list I sent over and hand curated the various “personas” that Flurry uses for synching smartphones with advertisers. Normally, Flurry assigns a phone with a persona using a lot more apps, but the results we provided Gordon could be mapped “reasonably well,” she said. Not all the apps we chose use the Flurry analytics tool, and so for those that didn’t, Gordon substituted a similar app.
The result: by a measure of four to one, Forbes staffers fall into the category of “personal finance geeks,” followed by music enthusiasts and food-and-dining enthusiasts.