Can we see the beginning of a post app era?

By June 11, 2012Mobile

I read in the Financial Times this morning that application downloads to iPhones have been falling for the past couple of months. I was surprised and excited by this data in equal measure which, if true and is the beginning of a trend, heralds an important shift in the way we use our mobile phones.

I started by doing some digging on the web and it turns out that the data comes from a mobile app advertising business called Fiksu, who recently released a bunch of data on mobile app downloads and monetisation which included the chart below.

Aggregate daily download volume of top 200 ranked free iPhone apps in the US

App Store Competitive Index

My reading of this chart is that we may be seeing the start of a new trend, but there is not enough data here to make that call definitively. Firstly, the data is limited to downloads of the top 200 free iPhone apps in the US, secondly I haven’t heard of anyone else spotting this trend, and thirdly we only have four months of data. That said, I’m in the business of spotting trends early and there is more than enough here to get my antennae twitching and put me on the lookout for corroborating data.

One obvious explanation for the decline in downloads is that users are turning from apps to the mobile web. This is the news that the HTML5 crowd have been waiting to hear for some time (myself included). There isn’t much to be found on the web either way about this, but the one thing I could find was a recent Nielsen survey which found that compared with a year ago we are spending more time on apps vs the web (81% of our time vs 73%).

I regard surveys as pretty unreliable indicators or tech trends, so I don’t put too much store in the Nielsen data, but I am left thinking that the most likely explanation for the Fiksu data is that consumers are growing tired of experimenting with new apps all the time and are instead spending more time with a smaller set of apps they have come to love and rely upon. This explanation matches my behaviour.

I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  • I agree HTML5 will eventually drive mobile post app but to me the data above is more likely to be about market saturation than behaviour change

  • One of many reasons maybe:
    – Maybe HTML5 is the answer. – It could be users downloading more paid apps
    – It could be users downloading more apps outside the top 200 eg 201 – 10,000

    FT is normally reliable but I don’t think they’ve got it right this time. iPhone & iPad sales are growing (this is independent of m/s changes) as more people switch from featurephones to smartphones. Apps provide a superior experience than HTML5 especially games. 90% of the apps in App Store are probably Objective C and not HTML5. I haven’t heard anything about users getting tired of apps.

  • To expand further on the two points below (plus add some of my own)

    1) I’d guess the app market is consolidating: people are presumably satisfied with the perhaps 10 apps they use the most for 99.9% of all their tasks. I barely used more than 10 most days now.2) It’s not about HTML5 in the way you imply, Nic.a) How many iPhone users do you know who primarily access HTML5 apps from their home screen? I doubt any other than FT users.b) Apps are just a platform and means of packaging a product. The web has, and continues to have, “apps” for some time. Think about all those single-webpage “apps” like accounting software, image editors, programming tools, games, etc.c) Currently (and for some years to come I suspect) people search app stores for stuff they want. I see no problem with this and this is also not a recent thing – consider Netflix, Steam and Facebook for other discrete unit distribution platforms that have been around for a while.However, I for one am definitely happy about the trend toward “HTML5″/CSS3 as the rendering engine – suits us nicely 🙂

  • Nic –  The fixsu data is for the Top 200 free Apps on iPhone only for US, an established market.  Xyologic have a more comprehensive look at total downloads across platforms, but only show the latest month’s data so we can’t look to see if this is a trend across the stores.  

    There are however many many reasons for lower downloads outside of the data being estimates.  Outside of established users being picky and finding the few apps that users actually want and use already, and aside from the problem of visibility and discovery for new apps against the 000’s of existing apps in the store, Xyologic  to the fact that of the top 150 free apps downloaded in iOS store for US, 74% are games (next biggest is photography with 8%).  Maybe individual Games, with in app purchases, deeper levels etc are being played more so new games aren’t being downloaded as often?  As we still have a gap between games as Apps and HTML 5 games, it seems that the question here should be what does the drop in downloads say for the Games marketplace in US as 3 in every 4 free downloads are for games?

    There’s another great story in the Xyologic data as well – US April iPhone downloads 378M.  US April Android downloads 674M.  Although Android is by far market leader in the US it has always lagged in App downloads and now is powering ahead in a developed over 50% smartphone penetration marketplace.

    Apps will always have a role as will HTML 5 mobile web.  From my perspective its all about understanding what the user behaviour and problem is that you want to solve and then solving this problem on as many relevant platforms as possible.

  • Very possible ☺

  • Hi Ross – the data showing Android downloads dwarfing iPhone and iPad downloads is very striking. With more and more great Android phones coming out I think Apple needs the iPhone 5 to be something special.
    If ¾ of free downloads are games then they must be suffering much of the decline in downloads that Fiksu observes. I think in aggregate people are spending more time playing games, so it must be more time with fewer more immersive games, as you say.

  • Hi Jof, I agree. HTML5 isn’t the explanation here. I just thought I’d float it. I do think that at some point in the future we will access most of our mobile apps via a URL in a browser rather than a downloaded app, just as we do on the web with the examples you give, but mobile browsers aren’t good enough yet – Chrome Beta is getting close though.

  • Interesting stats. I share the move to more time with a few favorite apps and use mobile web more these days. However I do keep exploring, but that is work interest related…

    Maybe a hangover in new app exploration post iPhone4s, Christmas and Steve Jobs passing?Maybe also the top ‘over 200’ bracket is growing with greater proliferation in ‘top free apps’ fueled by growth in availability of new games from new games publishers and existing app publishers successfully cross selling

  • sept 2011 was the start of the app feeding frenzie. People were downloading every app possible for no other reason than because they could. Most had no intention of actively using the app serving no other purpose than feeling good when showing friends and cluttering the flash drive. The current smartphone user is now far more educated and selective with app downloadage recognising there is a lot of trash out there!   

    Website’s need to become more ‘mobile friendly’ and adopt responsive design from the outset to see this browsing shift from apps to web on mobile devices. The purpose of an app is to  de-clutter the web alternative to generate a intuitive user experience.
    There is a lot of noise in the app world and every user can only genuinely say they are actively using between 5 and 10 apps per day. The new era of Apps is defiantly HTML 5. When it reaches full maturity expect another feeding frenzie as more companies will look to deploy apps.

    The survivors will be the ones that create practical value with context for users . Evernote, facebook, dropbox, spotify, Any.DO and Pubme to name a few.

    The future belongs to the smartphone, smart TV and smart pad. These all have one thing in common – Apps. I do not foresee a decline just a reduction in the app trash. 



  • Hi James – I think you are right. Users are more educated and they’ve lost interest in trashy apps.
    I have Spotify, Evernote, and Dropbox as apps on my desktop and I suspect I will always have them on my mobile (along with Kindle and Waze). I’m not sure how many more apps fall into that category though. Most of the other apps I use regularly (Taptu, MyFitnessPal, the FT, Bloomberg, Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter, Hailo Weatherpro, Gmail, maps) should all be fine without a native app.
    Thanks for the comment.


  • Google’s obsessed with removing the url; Facebook wants you to run apps within their site; Steam is url-less in effect. I reckon the web will become more app-like from the perspective of the consumer. Can you really imagine people typing urls on their web-enabled TVs? 🙂 Point and click, gesture or speech (“search for fish” versus “h t t p : / / w w w dot google dot etc”) way easier.

  • The URL will be the routing mechanism. The user interface may well be clicking on an icon or some other activity that is easier than typing a URL – e.g. speaking the name of the service

  • Yes – 4 months isn’t long. I think the iPad 3 was also released during this period, and that would also have an effect.

  • Yet again Nic, an interesting topic. So, I’ve asked a few “samples of one” and my (early & unsubstantiated) view is this;

    The idea of a smartphone inclusive of apps is now reasonable well understood, with many consumers on their second or third handset. They know and understand the “must have” apps, using these mostly, every day.

    What they then seem keen on as more sophisticated consumers is apps that provide greater efficacy for their particular requirements / lifestyle. I suspect as a result, the top 200 apps, includes their “must haves” and they dig below the top 200 for their lifestyle needs.

    As you say, not enough data to support any meaningful conclusion but it would be interesting to see growth stats lower down that list and be able to cross reference this with “consumer experience / period of ownership” data

  • Hi Nic,

    I have just noticed that here (
    Take a look on this disruptive concept ( from (Agentto).


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  • First of all – some important context.  Back in 2007 developers had two options:  firstly they could create novelty apps as this was an extension of the downloadable mobile entertainment market of the time – games, ringtones and wallpaper and the developers did not yet understand the full potential of native applications.
    Alternatively they were trying to fill the void left by larger businesses that were working out their ‘App Strategy’ and yet to launch their products.
    This led users to download, open and freely delete apps. Now that all major online brands have apps available and new users will go to the app shop and download the apps for the sites these use online, this trial and delete pattern has decreased – in short, because customers are a lot more savvy.
    Enter HTML5.  Brand owners will aggressively adopt HTML5 because it means that they do not have to build, update and manage updates for native apps across a highly fragmented OS landscape and can thus achieve a substantial cost saving. HTML5 also means that the brand can own the relationship with the customer as well as choose the billing solution they prefer, and mobile carriers are likely to support HTML5 as it gives them a chance to become relevant in the mobile applications market, after they gave away their position to the OEM’s.  Bottom line – HTML5 will become the norm very quickly.
    So are these changes in behavior and the move to HTML5 web apps the end of the app market? I suspect not.  Rather that brands will wrap their web app with native wrappers to allow them to upload these on the App Stores. These native ‘wappers’ will provide the brands with the free global distribution that apps benefit from, but without the costs of development.  
    Michael Tomlins, CEO, InfoMedia Services

  • Thanks Michael.

    Two things:
    – I too believe in an HTML5 future, but concerns about app speed are making that future seem more distant at the moment – I wonder if app store distribution will start to lose importance when HTML5 does finally catch on

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