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Thriving app economy grows unabated

February 21, 2022

Happy Traveler asian woman with mask and luggage using mobile phone and sit social distancing chair in terminal airport,
Jonathan Bennett, Chief Commercial Officer

Jonathan Bennett

Chief Commercial Officer

Research from Sensor Tower suggests that app downloads and engagement levels remained steady in 2021 after the massive surge in interest and usage driven by the pandemic in 2020. The company’s latest Store Intelligence Data Digest for the fourth quarter of 2021 estimates that worldwide app downloads from Apple’s App Store and Google Play reached 36.1bn in the three months ending December 2021, up 2.7% on the corresponding quarter of 2020. The expansion rate was slightly higher for the App Store (up 5.4% year on year to 8.3bn) than for Google Play (up 2% to 27.8bn). That’s an interesting metric given that the former generally hosts a higher volume of apps requiring payment or subscription than the latter.

As in previous quarters, most of the top ten most downloaded apps across both repositories were those providing photo sharing, messaging, and social media, led by Instagram and TikTok at around 175m downloads each. However, two eCommerce apps – Shopee (92m) and Meesho (82m) came in at eighth and ninth, respectively.

That’s all the more remarkable for Meesho, given that its services are primarily available for small businesses and merchants in one country – India. In contrast, Shopee has gradually expanded its operations beyond the boundaries of Southeast Asia to Latin America over the last couple of years. DOCOMO Digital senior vice president for Latin America & Iberia Luisa Muneratti tracked the company’s progress in her recent blog Shopee building business in Latin America.

Chinese online shopping platform Taobao also made the top twenty on the App Store specifically with just over 20m downloads, as did Walmart-owned global fashion retailer Flipkart on Google Play (around 38m downloads). In Asia, popular eCommerce apps besides Meesho and Shopee also included fashion and electronics retailers Flipkart and Mivi, both of which are based and do most of their business in India.

Chinese shopping platform Meituan made 16th on the list of most downloaded apps from the App Store in Asia with around 9m installs. The only similar eCommerce apps to make Sensor Tower’s Q421 top twenty in Europe across both Apple and Google repositories were Chinese retail app AliExpress (around 8.5m downloads) and Shein (8m), the international business to consumer fast-fashion retailer.

Streaming video apps most popular in the US

Over the top audio streaming app, Spotify made a tenth place on Sensor Tower’s global download rankings and Netflix 20th. But the US company Netflix proved far more popular in its home country than it did worldwide, where it was the sixth most downloaded app across both stores with around 8.8m downloads. Other video streaming apps also found ready a ready market amongst US consumers, led by Disney+ (9th), Peacock TV (14th), HBO Max (15th), and Disney-owned Hulu (17th).

Other than Hulu, all those apps were downloaded more often than Netflix from Google Play during Q421, as was the freemium on-demand alternative Tubi. But Netflix was the only video streaming app to make the list of top twenty most downloaded in Europe (13th), with most coming from Apple’s App Store rather than Google Play. In Asia, Chinese video streaming services Tencent Video did well on Apple App Store with around 10m downloads each.

Download volumes for fintech apps are modest, with a few notable exceptions. Electronic wallets (eWallets) and money transfer apps let users purchase goods and services and pay friends and family, using their smartphones regularly cropping up in Sensor Tower’s Q4 top twenty rankings.

Mobile payment service Cash App featured strongly in the US, representing the 7th most downloaded app across Apple’s app store and Google Play in Q421. India’s e-wallet PhonePe was also the 15th most downloaded app in Asia, with around 33m installs. At the same time, Chinese “Super App” AliPay cemented fifth place within Apple App Store downloads in Asia with just over 15m installs. Statista estimates that AliPay had over 1.23bn users in 2021, which is predicted to reach 1.28bn by 2025.

Mobile games eclipse all other download volumes

Games continue to eclipse all other download categories in volumes, expanding 4.5% to account for just over 2.2bn global installs in the fourth quarter of 2021. Only one other type of app – utilities – saw higher year-on-year growth, expanding almost 13% over Q420 to reach 626m downloads, less than a third of the games. Entertainment app downloads grew 1% year on year to 533m installs. Still, shopping apps were flat at 530m, and photo and video app volumes declined by almost 8% to 528m during the Sensor Tower quarter.

Battle royale title Garena Free Fire completed a clean sweep of being the only mobile game to rank in Sensor Tower’s top five during every quarter of 2021, in Q4 seeing 80m downloads across App Store and Google Play on a global basis. The rest of that bunch included familiar names in Subway surfers (55m), Roblox (51m), and Candy Crush Saga (44m). While another battle royale game – PUBG Mobile – trailed those four with 41m installs, its next-generation successor PUBG: New States achieved 36m despite being launched in November. Another new title – League of Legends: Wild Rift – also became the most downloaded mobile game from the App Store with almost 16m downloads.

App downloads in India more than double those of other countries

As Google Play is not available in China, Sensor Tower is unable to include it within its list of top ten countries by total app download volumes, which means India subsequently dominates the ranking. India accounted for around 6.8bn installs alone during Q421 (6.6bn of which from Google Play), more than double the number of the US (3.2bn) in second place and Brazil (2.7bn) in third.

However, China is included in the Apple App Store ranking, with downloads from the country estimated at 1.9bn, up over 12% year on year and marginally above those of the US, which saw installs declined by around 3% to 1.87bn. The third country in the Sensor Tower App Store ranking is Japan, with much lower download volumes of 450m (up 6.5% year on year), followed by the UK with 335m (p 4.4%) and Russia with 297m (up almost 13%).

Sensor Tower is yet to publish a detailed analysis for FY21 as a whole, other than headline figures which suggest total app downloads for the year grew just 1% to exceed 144bn. That included a 4.9% decline in installs from the App Store (32.8bn) but a 2.7% expansion for those from Google Play (111.4bn).

That growth rate is significantly below the equivalent figure for 2020, which saw app downloads expand by almost a quarter (23.8%) as economic lockdowns and social distancing restrictions pushed more people into spending more time on their smartphones at the height of the pandemic. But it also suggests that those engagement levels have remained steady over the past twelve months, which indicates that app downloads and usage will continue at a much higher rate post-pandemic in the immediate future.

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