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App Store analytics suggest that Elon Musk may be right in his contention that the big problems have already been solved. While we once had an appetite for new apps, that’s no longer the case: we’re increasingly downloading the more established ones.

The founding CTO of Hulu points to a stark difference in the app charts between 2014 and today …

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Elon Musk made his comment about the Internet in general, rather than mobile apps specifically.

I think most of the important stuff on the Internet has been built. There will be continued innovation, for sure, but the great problems of the Internet have essentially been solved.

But Eric Feng says the hundreds of hours he’s spent querying App Annie APIs shows that the same seems to be true of iOS apps.

While the undeniable dominance of the incumbents is certainly a huge hurdle for any startup, an even scarier hurdle is something everyone in tech — startups and incumbents alike — are complicit in. We’ve all made mobile computing really good […]

Instagram made crappy photos look good, WhatsApp made messaging free, Waze gave us time saving driving directions, Spotify made music affordable and on demand, Netflix and Hulu did the same with movies and TV, and so on. Paraphrasing Elon Musk, the greatest consumer problems of mobile computing have essentially been solved by apps.

The evidence, he says, is in two stats. One, the number of weekly downloads it takes to make the Top 30 most popular apps hasn’t changed much over the past five years. Whether in 2014 or 2019, you need about 230,000 downloads a week to do it.

But the second stat is the average age of the apps in that Top 30.

In 2014, the average Top 30 app had been available in the App Store for 625 days (i.e. they were less than 2 years old). Today, the average Top 30 app has been sitting in the App Store for 1,853 days, making it more than 5 years old.

So while users are collectively downloading the same number of popular Top 30 apps, they are choosing to download more established, mature apps (that have been around for over 5 years) and not fresh, upstart apps (that have been around less than 2 years) like they did back in 2014. The old is what’s popular and in demand, not the new, and that trend does not bold (sic) well for consumer startups. And the same trend is true for Android apps on the Google Play store, where the average age of a Top 30 weekly app has grown from 18 months in 2014 to almost 4 years in 2019.

Games are the exception, where 85% of the Top 30 games have existed for less than two years old, likely because most games satisfy us for only a limited time before we want a new one.

The three lessons for developers

Feng says that developers needn’t be disheartened by the results of his App Store analytics, but they do need to learn one of three lessons.

First, acceptance. You can make a lot of money without your app ever making it into the Top 30.

Second, avoidance. If mobile apps feel too competitive, there are other platforms – from old-school things like browser extensions to newer ones like Alexa skills.

Third, fight! It’s a tougher challenge today, but entrepreneurs tend to be the people who relish that fact.

There’s perhaps a fourth possibility: focus on apps for which people are willing to pay more money even if that means fewer sales. While App Store downloads recently fell for the first time since 2015, revenue continued to increase thanks to the average spend per download increasing by 21% year-on-year.

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