With so many businesses forced to close their office during the pandemic, workers had little choice but to work more flexibly from home or other locations using whatever device they had to hand. And subsequent demand for cyber security, business, and productivity apps expanded in parallel as millions of people worldwide started to use their smartphones to communicate with colleagues and access sensitive files and content.
App download numbers suggest more people are installing and using mobile security apps, particularly virtual private network (VPN) tools that create secure connections between a smartphone and the public Internet to protect the user’s privacy. Two apps – VPN Master and NightOwl – came in the top ten most downloaded apps registering the most significant annual change in 2021 according to App Annie, for example, ranked 5th and 8th, respectively.[i] Sensor Tower’s Q3 2021 Store Intelligence Data Digest also placed NightOwl and Share VPN amongst the top 20 apps downloaded from Google Play between July and September last year.
Data compiled by Atlas VPN in its Global VPN Adoption Index suggests that the number of people connecting to the Internet via a VPN from any device (including desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones) increased to 616m in the first six months of 2021, more than doubling from 277m in all of 2020. The surge in the number of people working from home helped drive that expansion, but so did restrictions on web use in specific countries alongside a desire to get around content restrictions and geo-blocking of streaming services.
In India, for example, Atlas VPN calculated VPN access jumped to 349m in H121 from 45m in H120. That rise (up 671%) was attributed partly to growing smartphone penetration combined with more reliable network availability and connectivity. Still, it may also have been driven by regular Internet shutdowns engineered by the Indian government.
Elsewhere Websquare estimates that over 480m VPNs were downloaded in 2020, 54% more than the total for 2019.[ii] And in China, the National Anti-Fraud Center app developed by the government’s Investigation Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security to combat and prevent telecommunications network fraud was the second most downloaded app in Asia during Q321, second only to TikTok.
Statista estimates that software accounted for 35% (US$41.3bn) of total global cyber security revenue in 2020 (US$118bn). The company’s Cybersecurity Software Report published in October 2021 includes multiple categories in its definition, including subscriptions to on-device and cloud applications; endpoint, network, messaging, and web security platforms; identity and access management (IAM) tools and risk management products – all of which are widely available in mobile app versions.
Productivity apps on the rise
It’s not just VPN and other security apps which have grown in popularity and usage since the onset of the pandemic – the last couple of years have also seen a surge in downloads in the business and productivity app space.
In its 2021-2025 Mobile Market Forecast report, Sensor Tower noted a spike in business app downloads at the start of 2020, with adoption increasing throughout the year as many offices worldwide remained closed. Business app installations were still high entering 2021. New, permanently established hybrid working arrangements in many countries are expected to drive demand consistently higher through 2022 and beyond than the pre-pandemic period.
Apps that provide remote workers with a means to meet and collaborate from their smartphones are seeing a lot of traction, regularly appearing in Sensor Tower’s quarterly rankings of the top 10 most downloaded apps in 2021. WhatsApp Business was the 12th most downloaded app during the third quarter. For example, Zoom (8th) and Google Meet (10th) also attracted many users. The company’s Q3 2021 Data Digest Report suggests Microsoft Teams also registered a total of almost 16m downloads from Apple’s App Store during the period. However, it was more popular in Europe than elsewhere.
According to App Annie, Microsoft Office Mobile – the mobile version of Office 365, which has various embedded security features – also ranked fifth by its yearly expansion in monthly active users (MAUs). Sensor Tower also recorded 23% year-on-year growth in global downloads of tools apps in the third quarter of 2021, a category that includes business-orientated apps like PDF readers, call recorders, and file managers.
With hybrid working practices now the norm rather than the exception, the smartphone is likely to maintain its indispensability for employees in the future. Remote workers tend to be loyal customers, offering higher average revenue per user (ARPU) and less likely to churn. And if app developers can offer convenient, flexible ways to pay for their security, business, and productivity app subscriptions that suit their budget and preference, they can drive increased usage.
[i] 2021: The Year The World Is Set to Spend $135 Billion Dollars – In Mobile Apps and Games in New Record, App Annie, 8th December 2021
[ii] Apps That Evolved During The Pandemic, Websquare, 16th June 2021