Unprecedented demand for mobile apps during 2020 pushed downloads and associated revenue to their highest ever levels. But as coronavirus lockdown restrictions have eased and people worldwide spend less time on their smartphones, 2021 is now witnessing uniform year on year declines as usage and engagement levels tail off.
The latest Sensor Tower Store Intelligence Data Digest for the second quarter of 2021 provides a fascinating snapshot of current trends. It estimates that total worldwide downloads of apps from Apple’s App Store and Google Play combined in the three months ending June 2021 dipped 4.8% year on year to just under 36bn. The decline was more marked in the App Store, with downloads falling 13.3% to 7.9bn, compared to a 2.1% drop to 28bn for Google Play.
App Store games see the most significant decline
Mobile game downloads from Apple’s App Store specifically fell over 22% year on year from 2.7bn to 2.1bn, primarily due to less demand from Chinese consumers, suggests Sensor Tower. Google Play also saw a drop in the number of games being downloaded, by a much smaller margin though of 4.4% from 12.4bn to 11.8bn.
Nintendo’s Pokémon GO became the eighth mobile game to surpass US$5bn in revenue by Q221. This threshold was also reached by Sony’s Fate/Grand Order and Player Unknown Battle Ground (PUBG) Mobile in the previous quarter. Pokémon GO ranks 4th by revenue since its launch in July 2016, helped by a global fan base which means that no one country contributes more than 40% of its turnover.
Google Play installs across the other five top app categories – tools, entertainment, social and finance – all saw expansion, with downloads of tools apps up almost 28% year on year and finance growing 25%. The most downloaded apps across both stores were social media and messaging tools like TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger.
Entertainment apps including Spotify and Netflix also make the top 20 globally, which widens to include HBO Max, Disney+ and Hulu in the US specifically. The US also saw a drop in demand for food ordering apps as services like DoorDash, GrubHub, and Instacart could not sustain the popularity they enjoyed during the lockdown. At the same time, the reverse was true for ride-hailing driver apps like Uber Driver and Lyft Driver as cabbies returned to work.
International fashion eCommerce app SHEIN consistently appeared in the Top 20 most downloaded apps in both the App Store and Google Play in the US and Europe, although not Asia. Google Maps also saw its best quarter on the Apple App Store since the onset of coronavirus as people across the globe started to travel more freely. So too did the National Anti-Fraud Center app, developed and launched in March by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security and National Computer Network Emergency Response Technical Team reportedly to warn users of calls, text messages or installed apps suspected of being associated with fraudulent activities.[i]
Conferencing apps like Zoom and Google Meet continue to be more popular than pre-pandemic, despite installs being down significantly in the same quarter in 2020. For example, India saw robust demand for both apps in Q221, with download volumes up 119% over the previous quarter. The country has also experienced the highest number of app downloads across all categories in both stores during the second quarter. Its seven bn total is more than double that of the US, in second place with just over three bn (China is deliberately excluded from Sensor Tower’s rankings because Google Play is not available in the country).
First half revenue provides cause for optimism
It’s too early to be certain if the downward trend for app downloads seen in the second quarter of 2021 will repeat across the entire calendar year. Nor is it a given that fewer downloads will necessarily result in less revenue. Sensor Tower has also predicted that worldwide consumer spending on mobile apps across the App Store and Google Play reached almost US$64.9bn in the first half of this year. That figure is nearly 25% higher than the US$52bn generated in the first half of 2020, which was up over 28% compared to H119.
Separate forecasts from games research specialist Newzoo also suggest mobile games specifically will generate more revenue this year than they did in 2020. It estimates they will make almost US$91bn for their developers in the whole of 2021, up 4.4% year on year. Of that total, smartphone (as opposed to tablet) games are expected to account for the more significant proportion at US$79bn, up 5% compared to 2020.
So while app downloads may shrink this year, it seems that increasing numbers of consumers are happy to pay some fee for their usage. That makes it all the more critical for their developers to embed flexible billing options within their apps which allow multiple forms of payment – whether through cards, app stores or direct carrier billing – to encourage more consumption.
[i] Anti-fraud app from Chinese police sees soaring downloads amid complaints of forced installs, South China Morning Post, 12th April 2021