2021: The Year in Review

That’s 2021 over then. So what happened in the world of apps and mobile? Well, how about a hyper-personal Android 12 re-boot, new rev shares for developers and a mania for all things ‘meta’? Here’s our round-up of the big events.

Spend on apps hit $135 billion 

When will the app economy stop growing? It’s been 14 years since Steve Jobs set the ball rolling, and every year since the total pot has increased. In 2020, the market got its biggest boost with COVID forcing people to stay at home and (by implication) stay on mobile. Spend soared to $110 billion.

But 2021? With the world getting back to some kind of normal? Would there be a drop? Quite the opposite. According to App Annie, the market is on target to rise by nearly 25% to hit $135 billion in 2021. It says iOS spending will dominate: 65 cents in every app economy dollar is spent by Apple users.

This is to be expected. As is the dominance of Android in terms of downloads. App Annie adds that it expects mobile users to install nearly 140 billion apps this year, with Google Play accounting for more than 100 billion of them.

More revs for devs 

After years of growing unrest, the argument around the 30 percent rev share taken by the two major app stores reached breaking point in 2021. Epic Games sued Apple over it. Epic kind of lost but also kind of won.

Whatever the detail of the ruling, there is now closer scrutiny of these payouts – and as a result both Apple and Google have now loosened things up.

Thus, Google cut its share of revenue on upfront or in-app purchases from 30 percent to 15 percent on the first $1 million per year that an app developer earns. Later it halved its subscription rev share to 15 percent.

You know that we are living in a Material You…

Some phone users want to have limited options. It saves them time, and protects them from choice overload. But they are in the minority. Most mobile phone owners want all the choice in the world.

When Google debuted Android 12, it had these users in mind.

The big new feature of the OS was a new design language called Material You. With this innovation, Google sought to put customization at the heart of the Android experience. As such, users get control of the contrast, size and line width of icons, as well as the ability to add personal images and create a unique color palette.

Privacy moves to the public spotlight

It’s taken some time for the world’s mobile users to care about privacy (as opposed to free stuff). Have they really changed that much? It’s debatable. But what is not up for discussion is the new privacy-awareness of the vendors.

This very much includes Google, which added a Privacy Dashboard to its Android 12 update. The new features gives users a timeline through which they can see when an app accessed a particular type of data: location, camera, microphone, etc. Naturally, this added to the workload of developers, who now have to provide this info. But it’s probably a good thing in the long run.

Big change in the world of mobile advertising

They called it an apocalypse for advertisers. ‘It’ was Apple’s decision to get rid of the Identifier for Advertisers.  The IDFA is a unique identifier that gives advertisers the ability to track and measure their users’ activity. But from April, Apple decreed advertisers could only use it with explicit consent from users (which everyone knew they would rarely give).

The move certainly helped Android. According to PubMatic, its share of ad spending rose from 54 percent to 63 percent, while ad spend share on iOS fell from 46 percent to 37 percent.

Still, there was pressure on Google to tighten up its rules. It did so in June, but it didn’t go quite as far as Apple. Instead, it changed the policy such that when a user opts out of personalized ads, their Advertising ID is made inaccessible to advertisers. Requests for it will return only a string of zeros.

Will the NFT transform mobile gaming?

In 2021, the art world was changed forever by the NTF (non fungible token). This blockchain-based idea lets people buy a digital asset (gifs, memes, video clips etc) in the form of a token that cannot be copied and is easy for anyone to check and verify. The art market was first to get in on the act, with someone paying $6.6 million for a video by Beeple.

Is it a bubble? Maybe. We’ll know soon. But NFTs do indicate that the blockchain thing, which has been the subject of hype for 10 years, is starting to find tangible applications. Could games be next?

In 2021, a game called Axie Infinity became a big talking point. The Vietnam-based combat title has been called Pokémon on the blockchain. It lets players earn real money by playing. All the value is stored on the blockchain. There’s no omnipotent publisher deciding who gets what.

Arianna Simpson, a partner at VC Andreessen Horowitz is a big fan. She said: “I think Axie is defining a new category and this mechanism, in my mind, is going to be baked into the coming generations of games.”

This explains why Andreessen Horowitz led a $152 million Series B into the game’s developer Sky Mavis, which is now valued at $3 billion.

Everything is the metaverse

In October, Facebook re-branded as Meta. Nearly everyone laughed at the choice of name. The problem is that the Meta concept is so trendy right now that it can only become painfully uncool very soon. A bit like calling your company Acme Interactive or Acme DotCom.

And what is the metaverse anyway?

Facebook’s announcement said: “The metaverse will feel like a hybrid of today’s online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world. It will let you share immersive experiences with other people even when you can’t be together.”


Like many new ideas, the metaverse is actually an old idea. Remember Second Life, which started its decline around 10 years ago? Anyway, let’s wait and see what Facebook/Meta does next to bring this slippery concept back to life.

No doubt Mark Zuckerberg has been paying attention to the success of games like Roblox, which is kind of a metaverse thing. It went public in March and ended the day with a valuation of $41.9 billion. Reports say it is on target for $3.1 billion in annual spend this year.

There’s a museum for phones

The Mobile Phone Museum project opened to much publicity this year. We say ‘opened’ but it’s actually online-only, which makes it no different from a museum of JPGs. That said, the curator Ben Wood has collected over 2200 individual models in a real physical space. Maybe one day it will be open to visit.

For now, check out the museum here and marvel at the weird – but undeniably creative – creations of yesteryear. Designs like the swivelling Motorola V70 and the almost entirely unusable Nokia ‘lipstick case’ 7280.

Oh foldable schmoldable

Phones have been boring since 2007. But they’ve also been absolutely brilliant. This is why it has become so difficult for any new handset design concept to break through. This includes the new-gen foldable phones.

Let’s face it. They have flopped. This summer, Samsung touted its range of fresh designs as “the new mainstream for smartphones.”  But the press disagreed. It described them as ‘large and unwieldy’ and ‘too expensive’. And the consumers? They shrugged and went back to their S21s and their OnePlus 9s.

170+ operators have launched 5G

Everyone is very excited about the 5G era. If we can have lightning speed broadband all the time, in millions of devices, anywhere on the planet, then just think of what new services might be possible. Actually, this is not easy to do. In the 4G era, we might have foreseen Netflix, but not so much Pokemon Go or Tinder or Robinhood.

The big changes will come when there is ‘standalone’ 5G everywhere. This will be an entirely new network, built on a fully cloud-native core. In the meantime there is ‘non-standalone’ 5G, which anchors 5G radio to the existing 4G LTE network.

It’s not quite as fast and capacious. But non-standalone is here now. By December 2021, the GSA said 177 operators had launched 5G mobile services in 46 countries.

TikTok dances past 3 billion

Just three years ago, people looked at Facebook/Instagram and thought: ‘They’re just too big. Who could ever challenge them?’ Well, now we know: a little Chinese dancing app called Musical.ly.

In 2018, Musical.ly changed its name to TikTok and the rest is history. In summer 2021, the app surpassed 3 billion downloads, according to Sensor Tower. In so doing, TikTok became the first non-Facebook app to achieve this milestone. A few weeks later, TikTok confirmed it had gone past 1 billion monthly users.

Now that we’ve unraveled 2021, in our next post we’ll take a look at what we can expect the fascinating world of mobile and apps to throw at us in 2022. Stay tuned!

Tim Green

Tim Green


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