Ten Years of the App Store: What Can We Learn From Our Mobile Past?

Article Image2018 marked the 10-year anniversary of both the Apple App Store and the Google Play store. During this time, both stores have been renamed and improved. More than 200 billion apps have been downloaded from each. Top apps now have billions of users and downloads. Are there any patterns and trends we can glean from the winners in the app economy so far? And what might that mean for the next 10 years?

FANG is an acronym coined for four high-performing tech stocks: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (now Alphabet, Inc.). Of the FANG, Netflix enjoyed the best 2018 with 39% growth on the stock market, whereas Amazon gained 28%. None of the FANG companies existed 25 years ago, and each is a media company in some shape or form.

Take a look at the app download data of the last decade, and it is clear that FANG apps absolutely dominate. The likes of Netflix, Amazon’s Alexa, Amazon shopping, Amazon’s Kindle, YouTube, Google Maps, Gmail, Google search, WhatsApp, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram have achieved incredible levels of scale and engagement.


Mobile is Social

According to Android Rank data (where data for analysis is more readily available), the top five apps installed on Android are all free social apps: YouTube is first and has more than 6.3 billion Android downloads, while Facebook has achieved incredible mobile success with 4.5-plus billion Android app installs. Facebook Messenger has 3.8 billion installs, while WhatsApp has 3.5 billion, and Instagram has 2.1 billion. Facebook owns four of the top five—think of all the data it has.

The lesson from this is that social is mobile, and mobile is social. Messaging, video, and feed-based social apps are bigger than any other media. The great power of mobile is to immediately connect people to the folks and things that matter most, in the moments that matter the most. As a content company, it is important to understand how mobile and content are connecting tissues between channels, platforms, and communities. To win in mobile, you have to understand social—and vice versa.

Netflix has 539 million Android installs and has always been one of the top apps for revenue rankings until it began avoiding the app store taxes—which is an interesting trend of its own in that you can no longer pay for a subscription via the app. The lessons behind Netflix’s success have been in offering great content, be it licensed or increasingly original and exclusive in nature. The app is a joy to use; it lets you tap to skip or delete or autoplay contextually—personal experience, powered by AI and data, is always improving. If you stop watching on one device, you can pick up on another from exactly where you left off. Netflix focuses on quality content and an excellent experience.


The Power of Voice

Now let’s look at Amazon, which is surely a candidate to dominate the next decade in terms of media, tech, and commerce. The Kindle app has 256 million installs and is useful in reading books on-the-go, as well as being a content store. Similar to Netflix, it lets you seamlessly pick up where you stopped, across devices—this kind of convenience is expected because it saves people time.

While Alexa has a modest 28 million app downloads, it has seen 21% install growth in November and December 2018. This app was also the most downloaded app in the U.S. and U.K. on the Apple App Store over Christmas 2018, showing the surge in smart speaker sales. For comparison, the Amazon retail app was ranked 10th. Amazon has profited from its customer obsession and focus on experience. The lesson here is that we are clearly entering a new era and witnessing a change in the way we interface with our devices. This is the beginning of voice interface dominance for the next decade, with it replacing and augmenting the previous interface eras (mouse and keyboard and touch and gesture). There are no hard and fast rules, meaning brands will need to overcome challenges and make mistakes. Media companies should look to the implications of voice on their model and recall challenges around app discovery and purpose from the mobile era, with any new voice experiences.

Google’s stated mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” It has moved on from being a mobile-first company to being an AI-first company. Along with Amazon, it’s made strides into the voice interface era with Google Assistant. Search is still the front door to many websites, particularly for media companies looking to drive traffic. Plus, Google owns Android and therefore has a treasure trove of data and customers. Google is a powerful part of the media landscape today and tomorrow.


The Future of Mobile

Given that FANG has nearly locked down the home screen of most people’s mobiles, with the likes of Snapchat (922 million Android downloads) and a few other new apps such as TikTok (145 million Android downloads, with between 500 and 800 million users overall) sneaking into a media watch list, what does that mean for companies in 2019 and beyond?

A decade of mobile apps teaches us that the winners in the app economy offer utility via great personal experiences, connecting people to the content and folks who matter. Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, and Google are each valuable, and they are unique to the customer using it. Each app under the parent brand forms a constellation of services that is relentlessly improving. Content companies must embrace personal and meaningful content—mixing art and science—to stand out in a changing, noisy world. They must be platform intelligent and ready to embrace the next trend, such as voice interfaces.

We are not just witnessing peak media consumption; we are seeing near-peak smartphone penetration and customer expectation. People live on the move, on demand, and on some sort of feed. For media companies, understanding algorithms and code is becoming as important as the quality and quantity of content. In the next 10 years, new apps will emerge—a few will succeed, but many more will fade into obscurity due to the dominance of FANG and others, like modern day kingmakers. The future is sure to be interesting because new entrants have the power to shake up the status quo and achieve success quicker than in any previous eras.   

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