Apps Eat More Bandwidth than Browsers

NetForecast sheds light on how apps and browsers consume bandwidth

As iPads, iPhones, Nooks, Kindles, and other mobile devices multiply like rabbits and join the established population of desktop and laptop computers, the nature of traffic to and from all device types is changing. The key reason for this change is that users are downloading more apps, which replace the browser for completing most tasks. Mobile device users generally rely more heavily on apps to do their bidding, while computer users continue to rely more on browsers. To the surprise of many, app-centric activity consumes more bandwidth than browser-centric activity--and given that mobile device users are more likely to pay for bandwidth consumed, understanding how apps eat bandwidth can avoid end-of-month billing surprises.

Why are apps more bandwidth-hungry than browsers?

To get to the bottom of this we set up a traffic measurement lab and did side-by-side comparisons of the same activities performed over apps and over browsers, and we compared results from a variety of mobile devices such as iPhones, iPads, Kindles and Nooks to results from computers. In one test, for example, we downloaded Wall Street Journal content using Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer as well as the Wall Street Journal app.

Our testing shows that user requests for content generate traffic that falls into four categories--content, background traffic, advertising, and stealth traffic.

Content traffic encompasses the "visible" content that the user will see. Content is delivered in a real-time or a stored form. Browsers generally deliver real-time or just-in-time content that is immediately visible on the screen (e.g., one WSJ article). Apps, on the other hand generally download a lot of content to the user's device that a user may or may not ever view (e.g., 124 WSJ articles in a typical day's issue).

Background traffic is material that downloads to your device based on the content you have requested. It typically consists of cookie updates, Java scripts calling for things over the network, as well as any extra material.

Advertising traffic is the ads that are imbedded into the content or part of the background load. Advertising is typically intermixed with the real-time content.

Stealth traffic is created by a growing phenomenon of communication between the device or browser and a product or service vendor, typically tracking such things as device usage and/or location.

The following figure shows a visual snapshot of the relative amount of bandwidth used by a browser and by an application to download user-requested content. As you can see, much of the bandwidth is consumed by content that the user will never look at, as well as advertising that the user has not requested and has no say in receiving, as well as background and stealth traffic that the user probably doesn't even know exists. The relative sizes of each traffic category are constantly evolving and will likely be different by mobile device vendor. We will be updating the data as we add measurement results to our database of findings.

Figure 1. Traffic Mix by Software Platform

It's time for traffic bandwidth consumption transparency. Users have the right to know what is consuming their bandwidth, especially when they must foot the bill for it. Content providers, advertisers, and vendors owe it to users to be prudent in the amount of traffic they generate, and they should give users at least some say over determining what eats their bandwidth. It's not right for a mobile user to have to pay a price when a fat advertisement is downloaded without their permission--or if an entire on-line magazine reloads every time a typo is corrected.  

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.