More Virtual Vampires – free apps eat Android batteries

In an earlier post, I discussed framing banner ads on websites as equivalent to the ‘vampire power’ sucked by electronic devices when they are supposedly turned off. Ad-encumbered websites have a harder time meeting the specs for Sustainable Web Design, since they drain extra juice for little or no reason – the banner ad creators don’t care if they are sucking CPU cycles, even if they’re really not necessary.

The take-home from the earlier post was that putting a banner ad on your web page typically drains several percent more energy, even when the page is “just sitting there”. This is because banner ads often have dynamic code that constantly pushes information back to the ad creator.

The Hidden Energy Cost of Web Advertising

The equivalent of banner ads on mobiles may be “free” apps.

According to this study, as much as 75 per cent of the power used by free apps is used to track and send user data. The rest of it is used to retrieve and serve up ads. The energy intensity of this constand reporting and banner request is quite significant. According to the authors, it can drain your battery in little more than an hour.

What’s the issue for sustainability? If you look at the general definitions of sustainability, they don’t rule out something just because it serves out ads (or does something that is not in the ‘save the earth’ category). The problem here is that users are unaware that the free apps are energy hogs, and the designers don’t apply efficiency techniques to minimize power consumption by the apps. The app is delivered for free, and development is lame thereby – and the result is a hidden cost of electricity, in effect, paying for bad design around the free app business model.

The reason this blog is “Sustainable Virtual Design” is that sustainability applies to any virtual product. As of 2012, the broad categories found on the Internet are:

  1. Standard websites
  2. Web Apps
  3. Online games
  4. Virtual Worlds

My guess is that sustainability decreases as you move from #1 to #4, since “long form” media online is less sustainable than the equivalent “short form”. Web apps, with their greater focus, are likely to attract prolonged use. If the material could be delivered in physical (print) form, there is a time limit. After enough time has passed using a virtual product, the information it provides could better be provided by a static printed page, as shown by the following LCA study on ebooks versus textbooks:

(you’ll need to make a free account to view the data)

To date, apps have been part of the “it’s all good” attitude to Internet technology. Hopefully, with studies such as these, we’ll begin to define their good and bad aspects in terms of sustainability.


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