A Smartphone-Savvy Developing Country Dethroned the US for Most Android App Downloads

Indian girls in traditional attire, check a mobile phone after performing Garba, a traditional dance of Gujarat state on the first night of Hindu festival Navratri in Ahmadabad.

Indian girls in traditional attire, check a mobile phone after performing Garba, a traditional dance of Gujarat state on the first night of Hindu festival Navratri in Ahmadabad. Ajit Solanki/AP

Indians have become the top Android-app users in the world.

Indians have become the top Android-app users in the world.

India has more than 220 million smartphone users. It’s the world’s second-largest smartphone market—after China and ahead of the US—and Android accounts for 97% of it. Price-sensitive Indians are not only buying more Android devices under $100, manufactured by foreign and local brands, but they are also skipping PCs entirely and going straight to mobile computing.

All that smartphone activity has done wonders for the mobile-app economy. Last year, Indians downloaded 6.2 billion apps through Google Play, up from 3.6 billion in 2015, according to a recent report by App Annie. That marks the first time India seized the top spot for Android-app downloads, toppling longtime leader the United States.

“Phones are not nice-to-have; apps are not nice-to-have,” says Danielle Levitas, App Annie’s senior vice president of research. “They’re increasingly critical because its communication, access to information, access to productivity, access to education, access to entertainment.”

In countries like India, Vietnam, and Indonesia—Levitas calls them “hypergrowth markets”—there is room to keep climbing the ranks. Even though over 1 billion Indians own some sort of mobile device, for example, only 17% of them own a smartphone. The 220 million is expected to become 810 million by 2020, and increases in app downloads will likely continue through 2017 and beyond.

In more mature markets like the US and Japan, app-download rates decline over time (and app engagement picks up) as users settle on their essential apps and visit them habitually. In India, high data costs and spotty networks have made extended engagement difficult. Which makes it all the more surprising that Indians not only downloaded the highest greatest number of Android apps, but also clocked the most time spent on Android devices last year—145 billion hours, well above No. 2 Brazil, at 110 billion hours.

This is in part because the mobile economy is adjusting to address the needs of emerging markets, where people may not have affordable or viable 4G connections. In October, Facebook released a less data-intensive, pared-down app called Facebook Lite. In September, Reliance Jio rolled out the world’s cheapest LTE data rates. Google is currently setting up free wifi infrastructure in 400 railway stations across India, and Facebook recently introduced ‘Express Wi-Fi,” which allows people to access internet through local hotspots at reduced costs.

Unsurprisingly—Apple captures less than 3% of the Indian smartphone market—India did not feature in the Top 10 countries for iOS downloads or time spent on the devices. But the country’s few iPhone owners are avid shoppers: They’ve installed an average of 4.7 shopping apps each, according to App Annie.

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