Smartphone game use is up, especially with iPhone

May create headaches for IT at companies that allow workers to use their smartphones at the office

Mobile games are growing more popular among smartphone users -- especially among iPhone users, who play games twice as many hours as the average smartphone user, according to new Nielsen research.

The findings may give little cheer to employers that are gradually (sometimes begrudgingly) allowing workers to use their own iPhones and Android smartphones for work purposes.

Nielsen's latest blog, "Play Before Work," noted that games are the most popular mobile app category -- 64% of mobile subscribers have games on their devices. Weather apps were No. 2, at 60%, followed by social networking apps (56%) and maps and search (51%). Nielsen reported that 32% of mobile subscribers have banking or finance apps, and just 21% have productivity apps.

Games were also the top mobile app in Nielsen's September 2010 survey of 4,000 mobile subscribers, but with a smaller share of that market: 61%. Neilsen said it surveys more than 20,000 people every month online and by telephone for Spanish speakers for its various survey topics.

Nielsen also found iPhone users spend almost twice as much time playing games on the phone as the average mobile gamer: Users of Apple's device spend an average of 14.7 hours per month playing games, compared with an average of 7.8 hours a month for users of all types of mobile phones. Android users play games on their devices for an average of 9.3 hours per month, Windows Phone 7 users spend an average of 4.7 hours gaming each month, and the monthly average for users of feature phones and BlackBerry smartphones is 4.5 hours.

In a separate finding, Nielsen said that smartphone users are spending three more hours per month playing mobile games than they were a year ago. The monthly average increased from 6.4 hours to 9.4 hours, almost a 50% increase.

Nielsen also found that 93% of smartphone users would be willing to pay for a mobile game.

The growth in the popularity of mobile games is no surprise, and it's reminiscent of the surge in interest in games for desktop PCs when they first appeared years ago and forced employers to adapt their computer use policies. "Most companies didn't allow games at first on PCs, but then allowed at least some but not generally during work hours," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates. "The mobile world is moving in the same direction... smartphones are the PCs of five to seven years ago."

Analysts said that since more and more people are bringing their personal smartphones to the office -- and since those devices have better games, sharper displays and faster networks (to support multiplayer games) than they once did -- corporations need to be ready to adopt policies for use of personal devices at work.

Gold said the bigger issue, however, is not the games, but the access that workers have to app stores where they "can download whatever they want, some of which is likely to be unsafe for corporate information."

A number of software vendors and smartphone and tablet makers are starting to help employers provide more control over app downloads, Gold noted. For example, BlackBerry maker Research In Motion is offering software called Balance on its PlayBook tablets that separates personal apps (such as games) from corporate apps. Third parties, such as Enterproid, VMware and OK Labs, offer software tools with similar capabilities -- and the so-called "virtualized persona" market is expected to grow dramatically in coming years, Gold said.

Cisco Systems also just announced an enterprise-class app store called AppHQ, which is designed to be a place where IT managers will be able to provide their corporate users with approved and tested apps, as well as internally developed apps.

"Companies probably won't be able to prevent users from downloading apps, including games, especially if the device is bring-your-own, but they can prevent exchange of data and set up firewalling between corporate and personal apps," Gold said. "That will help protect corporate assets and make [personal] smartphones safer for the enterprise and its users."

Corporations and IT shops can function effectively in a world where workers use personal smartphones to play games and conduct business in ways that won't hurt the business, said Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney. "People want to buy as consumers and live as businesspeople," he said. "They really are separate [functions], except the enterprise doesn't want to pay for consumer apps. Security is taken care of to some extent through [setting up] an architecture that inhibits malware."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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