2020: A Review of the Year We Will Never Forget

In 2020, the world retreated indoors – and we all reached for our smartphones. It was the year that the app economy blurred into the real economy. Here’s our look back…

Imagine being Eric Yuan, the founder of Zoom, at the start of 2020. The company was nine years old and doing OK. It was hosting 10m video meeting participants a day. However, Yuan must still have been thinking: how can we move things up a gear? How can we make video conferencing more mainstream?

Well, we all know what happened next.

By March 2020, Zoom was up to 200 million daily meeting participants. That number kept on growing throughout the year. By November, Zoom’s Android app passed 500 million downloads on the Google Play Store.

Yes, 2020 was the year everything changed. The pandemic forced us all indoors. And what did we do there? Well, some learned the guitar. Some made artisan bread. 

But most of us reached for the smartphone. 

As a result, all those emerging digital habits – working from home, ordering from takeaway apps, subscribing to virtual exercise classes, and (of course) videoconferencing – moved fully into the mainstream.

That was the big story of 2020 (see ‘new normal’ headline below). One we will remember for decades to come.

And now, the official numbers are in. 

So let’s look back at the highlights of the year for the app market. First, the headline numbers…

218 billion app downloads

Total downloads across both iOS and Google Play hit 218 billion (source: App Annie’s State of Mobile 2021 report). This was a seven percent increase on 2019. 

Sensor Tower gives a rather more conservative figure. It calculates that first-time installs reached nearly 143 billion, up 23.7 percent on 2019. It says the number for Google Play was 108.5 billion. 

Consumer app spend hit $112 billion

Global spend across iOS and Google Play reached $112 billion in 2020, says App Annie. This represented a 25 percent growth year on year.

As usual, iOS captured more of the total spend (which is direct consumer spend, and does not include ad revenue). App Annie says 65 cents of every dollar went to iOS. It estimates Android spend at just over $40 billion.

Sensor Tower reports a slightly lower number, but similar levels of growth. It says consumer spending was $106 billion – up 30 percent year-on-year – with $37 billion for Android.

3.3 trillion hours of time spent inside apps

With so many people locked down – and therefore with more leisure time – total time spent in apps rose even more than app downloads and monetary spend. 

According to App Annie, people spent 3.3 trillion hours on Android phones alone in 2020 — up 25 percent on 2019. Per-user, this works out at 4.3 hours a day.

The $240 billion mobile ad market

2020 was a curious year in the world of mobile advertising. On a purely superficial level, the market boomed like most other facets of the smartphone economy. According to App Annie, spend hit $240 billion in 2020, a 26 percent year-over-year increase.

But the more important question is what happens next. 2020 was the year that Apple pledged to kill its IDFA. This is the identifier that mobile advertising companies use to monitor app users’ activity. Apple’s action was the latest to limit this kind of digital tracking. It followed a move to limit third-party cookies on Safari. Google is scheduled to do the same for Chrome browsing in 2022.

So now the app industry is waiting to see what Google will do with its identifier, GAID. Most commentators believe it will take a similar path to Apple. Until now, Google has said little. 

Whatever happens, it seems likely that the mobile ad ecosystem will need to either persuade consumers to opt-in for tracking (in return for some kind of reward) or find ways to present more contextual – and less personalized – forms of advertising. 

As the headline numbers above show, the generic app indicators all leapt by substantial margins. But what about the more granular detail? Let’s take a look…

Americans now spend more time on mobile than watching live TV 

The smartphone is dramatically changing our viewing habits – and with it, domestic life. The 1950s image of the family crowded around the living room TV is fading into history.

In fact, mobile has already ‘won’. In 2020, says App Annie, Americans spent 15 percent more time on mobile (3.9 hours) than watching live TV (3.4 hours)

These dramatic new consumer habits are shaking up the way content is made – and who makes it.

A good illustration of this came in one of 2020’s big mobile stories: Quibi. At the beginning of the year, everyone (in the industry) was very excited about Quibi. This was the start-up created by Hollywood billionaire Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Quibi was going to disrupt the mobile video space with a service that offered made-for-mobile short-form content. It had a $1.75bn budget. 

By October, the dream was over. Quibi failed. All sorts of reasons were given, but the overarching problems seemed to be that it was ‘top-down’. The founders were old-school Hollywood. For them, content was all about stars, big production values, and glamour.

But what users really wanted was to see teenagers dropping mentos into coke bottles. In other words: YouTube and TikTok. Please read on…

App of the year: TikTok

Obviously, TikTok is not new. But in 2020 it crossed the threshold from popular to phenomenon. 

According to Sensor Tower, it recorded 315 million installs in Q1, the most any app has ever done in a single quarter. For the year, the total was 961 million new installs. That brought the lifetime number to nearly 2.6 billion.

And the revenue was similarly impressive. TikTok earned $1.2 billion from user spending, up 627 percent from $165.1 million during 2019. 

‘New normal’ app categories surge 

As stated in the introduction to this post, 2020 transformed the fortunes of app categories that helped people work and play in lockdown. Take food and drink, for example. Takeaway apps flourished, with users clocking up an estimated 1.2 trillion sessions in 2020. 

Rises in time spent across seven selected app categories include:

  • Education: +62%
  • Business: +57%
  • Video streaming: +43%
  • Shopping: +40%
  • Food delivery: +38%
  • Finance: +35%
  • Fitness: +23%

(source: App Annie).

Games average 1 billion downloads a week

Mobile gaming now dwarfs other platforms such as console and PC. The market is on track to surpass $120 billion in consumer spend in 2021 — that’s 1.5x more than other gaming formats combined. 

Enforced lockdowns just made mobile gaming even more pervasive. App Annie estimates weekly downloads hovered around 1 billion for most of the year.

Nearly 80,000 Android developers earned more than $100k in 2020

The app economy is, of course, a real economy. It passed the $1 trillion mark in 2016. Happily, it supports thousands of developers – like you. While there’s a long tail of app makers accruing modest amounts, there are more and more big earners. 

App Annie estimates that 76,000 Android developers earned more than $100k last year. At the very top end, 1,285 earned $2m or more. Something to aim at, right? 

Will there ever be another year like 2020? In humanitarian terms, let’s hope not. But we can hope that the app space consolidates all the gains it made across a unique 12 months. 

Tim Green

Tim Green


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