The Hidden Cost of Free Apps

Posted by · March 20, 2012 12:31 pm

When you think of getting something for free, you’ve probably been conditioned to accept the likelihood that whatever you’re getting will be constantly flanked or intermittently interrupted by advertisements. After all, if you’re not paying for the service, somebody else is. And since that somebody isn’t actually going to use the service it’s paying to make available to everyone else, they are going to demand something else in exchange.

Angry Birds

That something else, without a doubt, is you.

In exchange, for example, for making Angry Birds free to everyone with a smartphone, advertisers are guaranteed a captive audience. However, a recent study (PDF) from a team at Purdue University reveals that this is not the only cost when it comes to those free apps that everyone loves.

According to the study, almost three quarters of the power used to operate these free apps is spent on those pesky ads. Thanks to their investigative app, which went by the name eprof, the team was able to pinpoint exactly which processes were taxing the battery most.

Continuing the use of Angry Birds as an example, the findings show that the game itself only accounts for 18 percent of the total power used to run the app.

The cause of the problem, notes Abhinav Pathak—the project’s leader—is, put simply, poor coding, which in turn causes these attractively not priced apps to run extremely inefficiently.

According to an Engadget report, Pathak is currently working closely with Microsoft, hoping to bring his software to Windows Phone. He plans to present his findings in next month’s EuroSys conference in Bern.

So next time you download or open up a free app with your smartphone, remember, not only are you the product, but the advertisers paying for that addictive app have elected to forego the cost of lighter, more efficient code to pass that cost along to you, in the form of a shorter battery life.

It makes one wonder how much money it would save smartphone users to simply pay a dollar or two for the app when compared to the cost of having to charge their phones more frequently.