2020 Summer Review: what’s happening in apps?

“This summer has been quite… different.” – what an understatement! Amid all the disruption, the mobile market kept evolving. Here are the big stories.

COVID-19 fuels app download boom
When millions of people were forced to stay at home, what did they do? They used apps, of course.

The numbers are pretty amazing in many aspects.

Firstly, downloads. According to Sensor Tower, the first-time app installs for 1H20 hit 53.2 billion on Google Play, up 27.3% from 41.8 billion in the same period in 2019. The number of downloads from Google’s platform was nearly three times higher than those on the App Store.

Secondly, hours. According to App Annie, monthly time spent in apps grew 40% year over year in Q2 2020, reaching an all-time high of over 200 billion hours during April 2020.

Finally, money. Sensor Tower says consumers spent $50.1 billion worldwide in the App Store and Google Play in the first half of 2020. They spent $40.6 billion during the same period in 2019.

Google preps Android 11
Google hasn’t let the cancellation of its annual developer event halt the progress of its next edition of Android. It unveiled Android 11 Beta 2 in June, and with it a few intriguing new additions.

The main focus seems to be making communication easier. In Android 11, users will be able to move all of their conversations (across multiple messaging apps) to one place in the notification section. They will also be able to reply without having to switch out of their current task. This is thanks to a feature called bubbles. Users can open a bubble inside the notification screen and do it from there instead.

Another exciting new function is the ability to control multiple smart devices, such as lights, heating, etc., all in one place. Users can do this with a long press on the power button. This action reveals all these device controls – alongside other wallet-type tools such as payment methods and boarding passes.

Google insists that Android 11 is on schedule, aiming to launch on September 8, 2020. And while this new version might officially be called 11, Google hasn’t entirely dropped the dessert names. Internally, Googlers call it Red Velvet Cake.

New privacy moves to pile pressure on mobile advertisers
Post-Cambridge Analytica, regulators are starting to tighten up on privacy.

Laws in Europe (GDPR), California (CCPA), and New York (SHIELD) have restricted the data companies can collect and store. They have also accelerated the removal of 3rd party cookies on desktop sites. The same restrictions are appearing in the mobile ecosystem. Apple is leading the way (which it can afford to do as its business model sells hardware, not ads).

In iOS 14, Apple has changed the policy around its Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA). This is the piece of code that helps developers to track a user’s activity. It is used by advertisers to measure the effectiveness of their campaigns.

But now, developers will have to display a notice that asks users explicitly if they are happy to be tracked. Most users will likely tick ‘no’. This will put pressure on the mobile ad community to find an alternative. Many believe marketers will start looking at more generic indicators, rather than analyze at the level of the individual users.

Google hasn’t gone quite as far. But it is still keen to demonstrate a level of privacy-awareness. It is set to give Android users more granular control over their app permissions. It will introduce ‘one-time permissions’ so that users can grant access to your microphone, camera, or location – just once.

The next time the app needs access to these features, it will have to ask for access again. And even when users grant longer-term permissions, they will “auto-reset” when not used for a while.

The era of TikTok and Zoom
While the app market boomed, a handful of products went stratospheric. Most notably, TikTok and Zoom.

TikTok claimed the top spot. The Chinese video app had an incredible summer. It moved past the 300 million download milestone (the only app to have ever done this before inside three months was Pokemon Go). In June alone, it had more than 87 million installs (52.7 percent more than June 2019).

Zoom clearly won the video conferencing war despite lots of competition (Houseparty, BlueJeans, Google Meet, Skype, RingCentral, etc.). It was also downloaded 300 million times during the Q2 2020. It claimed 71.2 million installs in June – an incredible 34x rise in 12 months.

Turbulent times for 5GThis was supposed to be the year that 5G really started to fly (we actually wrote blog posts about the bright future of 5G in 2019, you can read them here and here). It still might be. But COVID-19 has made the road very bumpy.

Firstly, the pandemic caused Mobile World Live to be canceled. The expo was set to be a showcase for 5G networks and handsets. Later came the nonsense around 5G causing the Coronavirus-outbreak, then the political row that saw the US, followed by the UK canceling contracts with Huawei.

The experts still believe 5G will power ahead this year. According to Ericsson’s Mobility Report, service providers continue to switch on 5G, with more than 75 launching commercial 5G services this summer. It believes there will be 190 million 5G subscribers by the end of 2020.

This is mainly due to a fast uptake in China (with the US and Europe slightly slower). However, Ericsson is still confident that the long-term numbers will be unchanged by COVID-19. By 2025, it estimates 2.8 billion people will be on 5G.

Apple to ditch cables and headphones? Will Android follow?
Reliable sources (analyst Ming-Chi Kuo) have suggested that Apple is set to get rid of more ‘extras’. By ditching headphone jacks, plugs, and so on, the inside track is that future iPhones will be shipped without a power supply and headphones.

People may be horrified, but Apple can claim (with justification) that most owners already have this kit. It’s unnecessary and harmful for the environment to excessively produce and ship.

Time will tell whether the rumors are correct. If they are, there’s little doubt that Android device makers will follow. They usually do.

Amazon moves Echo closer to appsSmart speakers are well-established now. There are millions in people’s homes. But for most users, they are entirely separate from other devices. Amazon wants to change this. Earlier this summer, it announced that Alexa will soon be able to launch features in iOS and Android apps.

For example, if a user asks Alexa to ask Twitter to search for something, the request will open the user’s Twitter smartphone app, do the search, and then display a list of results. 

If you’re a developer wondering if you should voice-enable your app, you can read more about it in our blog post from December

Smartphone sales slump
Global demand for mobile phones will inevitably drop in 2020. Analyst CCS Insight expects 1.57 billion mobile phones will be sold. This is almost a quarter of a billion units lower than that in 2019.

Facebook makes a move into payments and shopping
The West’s dominant mobile companies would love to do like WeChat. In China, WeChat is not just another app: it’s a whole ecosystem. Users can do pretty much anything inside it – dating, shopping, paying, banking, etc. – and Facebook wants to do the same. So far, it’s had limited success. But it keeps trying.

This summer, for example, Facebook launched Facebook Shops. The service makes it easy for businesses to set up their own online store on Facebook and Instagram. Users can find them on a business’s Facebook Page or Instagram profile.

Facebook is still trying to get payments working inside its apps. Last year, it unveiled Facebook Pay, making it easy to transfer money to other Facebook users. Now, it’s taking the same feature to WhatsApp, starting in Brazil.

Meanwhile, Snap has similar expansion plans. It launched Snap Minis. They are mini-apps built with HTML5, so they are lightweight. They are integrated within Chat with no installation required. Users can just open them while chatting to do things like play games, book tickets, conduct polls, and so on.

These are just some of the main developments to have hit the mobile market over the summer. Clearly, there are many more. After all, COVID-19 is speeding everything up, with mobile at the heart of the action.

History can change rapidly. Let’s hope for a V-shaped recovery, with the app economy right at the center of it.

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