Truth in Advertising: The Hidden Cost of Mobile Ads for Software Developers

Author(s): Jiaping Gui, Stuart Mcilroy, Meiyappan Nagappan, William G. J. Halfond
Venue: International Conference on Software Engineering
Date: May 2015

Type of Experiement: Case Study
Sample Size: 21
Class/Experience Level: Other
Data Collection Method: Observation


The “free app” distribution model has been extremely popular with end users and developers. However, in order to subsidize the cost of "free apps", developers must generate some form of revenue to cover the costs of development. So, developers integrate mobile ads within their applications. Although the apps are considered free monetarily, they do come with hidden costs. The paper discusses the outcome of an empirical study investigating how mobile ads affect mobile applications and whether their usage is justified.

The study involved 21 real world apps from the Google Play app store that make use of mobile advertising. The analysis criteria considered five types of hidden costs: app performance, energy consumption, network usage, maintenance effort for ad-related code, and app reviews. Using a standardized process, tasks were done on the ad-free versions and ads version comparatively. After the tasks were completed, different tools were used to measure the performance metrics.

Ultimately, in the end, the study concluded that all 21 highly-rated and actively maintained Android apps had a very high hidden cost. The investigators found that the cost of ads in terms of performance, energy, and bandwidth are substantial. The results of this study can hopefully provide software developers with guidance on weighing the tradeoffs of incorporating ads into their mobile apps.