December 8, 2021

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travel, Always a step ahead

Editing apps on your phone home screen shows how the pandemic changed you

Open up your phone’s home screen: What’s hot, and what’s not?

What’s on your home screen isn’t just your favorite apps — it’s a window to your priorities. Your top apps are how you get information, do work, allow yourself to be distracted and connect with the people you care about. I’d love to hear about what’s on yours, over email or through my Help Desk form.

Many people edit their home screen to provide access to the apps they use most often. (If you don’t know how, I’ll show you below.) For some, home screen organization is an obsession, making apps compete for coveted real estate, tucking them away into folders or even lining them up by color. And last fall, iPhones followed Android by allowing people to customize icons and add “widgets,” little rectangles that give you information like weather and news from apps without needing to open them.

On my home screen, I can see how much of my life I’ve shifted extremely online. I’ve added Zoom and way too many other video chat apps, delivery-tracking apps (UPS and FedEx) and an app for virtual visits with my doctor. Friends and colleagues tell me their home screens gained apps for take out (Postmates), checking into the kids’ virtual school (Google Classroom) and cutting off their kids’ access to the Wi-Fi router (Eero).

What’s now missing from my home screen: apps for booking reservations (OpenTable), ordering coffee to go (Starbucks) and anything to do with air travel (United) and public transportation (Transit).

We don’t have big-picture data about how people have reordered their home screens. But we know the app industry recorded a banner year in 2020 — reflecting a larger boom for the digital economy, from online shopping to telemedicine. In the U.S., we downloaded 10 percent more apps in 2020 than even 2019 according to App Annie, a company that measures apps. It says that in the second half of 2020, Americans spent, on average, over four hours each day on a mobile device — up nearly 40 percent from 2019. That happened even while so many of us were stuck at home.

America’s most-downloaded apps of 2020 were TikTok and Zoom, according to App Annie.

Installations of the 10 most-popular workout apps peaked in April 2020, up 171 percent year-over-year in the U.S., according to Sensor Tower, another firm that measures apps.

On the flip side, it says installations of travel apps were down 17 percent in the first week of March, compared to a year ago right before stay-at-home orders kicked in. They’re down 26 percent from the first week of March in 2019.

Increasingly, there’s a correlation between the apps we use and the winners and losers in our economy. One shocking stat: The wealth of nine of America’s top titans increased by more than $360 billion during the pandemic — and they are all tech barons. It’s worth asking: Whose interests are your apps really serving?

Even if you haven’t gotten around to grooming your home screen, your phone still gathers some eye-opening clues about how you’re spending your time and money. If you don’t use an app for a while, iPhones will try to save you storage space by archiving apps you haven’t opened for 30 days — just look for a little cloud icon next to the app name. My archived apps read like a eulogy for my Before Times life. (You’re gone but not forgotten, Sky Guide, an app I used to identifying constellations while on vacation.)

Your phone can also report on what apps you do use. On an iPhone, if you keep swiping to the left until you can’t anymore, it will bring up a screen called App Library. At the top right, a grouping called “suggestions” shows you what apps you use most often at that particular time of day. The rest of the groupings are also organized by the apps you use most often.

Another way to track your app use is to turn on “screen time” or “digital well-being” functions in iPhones and Android phones, respectively. They’ll report what apps you use most week by week.

If you’re ready to edit your apps — and priorities — it’s pretty simple.

On an Android phone like the Samsung Galaxy, just tap and hold for a second on an app icon and then you can move it around or delete it.

On an iPhone, open your home screen and tap and hold on an empty part of the screen. All your apps will start dancing around like they have to pee. Once they’re doing that, you can drag them around to a different spot or different screens, or tap on the minus in the little circle to delete them. To add a widget, tap and hold on an empty part of the screen and then tap the plus in the upper left corner.

My advice: Make apps earn your valuable attention. If there are any whose mere presence sucks you in like cigarettes (I’m looking at you, Instagram), hide them away in folders or on subsequent home screen pages.

Or, consider creating different home screens for the work day and personal time; iOS 14 lets you turn on or off any of your app pages by going into app edit mode, and then tapping on the dots along the bottom. (You can always get to any app in a hurry with search — on an iPhone, just tap lightly and pull down to bring down a search box.)

Some of the happiest people I know have almost nothing on their home screens at all.

More tech advice and analysis from Geoffrey A. Fowler:

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