The Top 5 Mobile App Trends of 2020

By Lisa Moshfegh, Product Marketing

2020 has been a tumultuous year. A global pandemic claimed the lives of nearly 1.5 million people, a worldwide movement emerged for racial justice, and American political division created widespread concern.  With COVID-19 forcing unprecedented social distancing, the mobile app economy has also experienced radical shifts. App consumption has exploded, Gen Z is gaming more than ever, and mobile news consumption dwarfed that of 2019.  And Apple’s announcements of impending data policy rule changes have upended an ecosystem. In this report, we’ll revisit the biggest mobile app trends in 2020.

1. Society Ground to a Halt

As COVID-19 began to spread, non-essential business closed, schools transitioned to distance learning, and most recreational activities were paused or canceled. Governments issued stay-at-home orders to further limit the spread, which forced the most people to stay home. The transition to working from home and reduction in travel turned financial districts and airports into ghost towns. And with restaurants closed, many people chose to cook for themselves or order takeout. In fact, while usage of recipe and takeout apps increased during shelter-in-place, usage of restaurant apps declined by 36%. In addition, we analyzed traffic to both airport and financial districts across the United States to gain insights into people’s movement.

Change in Movement to U.S. Financial Districts

In the chart above, we show the percent change in daily mobile app users in U.S. financial districts beginning in March, when the pandemic went into full swing, comparing each month to baseline usage from January. We display this change in blue against the rising number of new coronavirus cases in gray. Starting in April, travel to financial districts plummeted by 60% compared to pre-coronavirus levels. Read the full report here on the dramatic decline of traffic to America’s largest financial districts.

2. App Category Booms and Busts

The onset of COVID-19 forced most Americans to shelter-in-place as non-essential businesses and schools closed. As people suddenly found themselves with more free time, many reached for mobile devices to help pass the time. And while aggregate app usage is up, usage across individual app categories varies wildly.  Let’s check out the top movers.

Change in Mobile App Usage by Category in 2020

In the chart above we show the percent change in monthly sessions compared to the January 2020 baseline for the top changing app categories. On the right, we rank app categories based on their app usage growth since the beginning of the year.  A surge across Investment apps were the result of wildly volatile financial markets. And as gyms and yoga studios closed, Health & Fitness apps spiked by helping people maintain a workout regiment. On the other end, Sports and Food & Drink suffered double-digit declines as sporting events were cancelled and restaurants were forced to close. Read our full analysis of all app categories from January to July.

3. Mobile Gaming Exploded

As people spent unprecedented amounts of time at home, with limited recreational activities, mobile gaming filled the void. In an earlier report, we concluded that the quarantine created such an unusual surge in mobile gaming that every day was like Sunday. The typical weekend spikes were erased, and every day saw elevated usage. On average, mobile gaming sessions were up by 21% compared to the pre-coronavirus levels! Although much of this growth was driven by Gen Z who found themselves  with minimal schooling and limited recreational activities, mobile gamers of all  generations were gaming more

Change in Mobile Game Usage in 2020

In the chart above, we plot 2020 game sessions  by user in dark blue. The light blue line represents 2019, to illustrate the increase in usage that occurred this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, mobile gamers averaged 17% more gaming sessions than in 2019. Considering that gaming is one of the largest app categories, even modest increases are remarkable.

4. Mobile News Consumption Soared

The first two months of 2020 began with a standoff with Iran, the impeachment trial of a sitting U.S. President, and the death of a basketball icon. Then COVID-19 began to spread, forcing governments to issue shelter-in-place orders that led to economic uncertainty. As the country attempted to recover from the initial COVID-19 wave, the death of an unarmed African American man at the hands of the Minneapolis police department triggered a global movement calling for racial equality. These headlines culminated with a tumultuous campaign for the United States Presidency that resulted in the most votes ever cast in a U.S. election. All of these stories led to massive spikes in mobile news consumption. Let’s take a look.

Mobile News Consumption 2020

In the chart above, we chart daily mobile news app sessions in the U.S. for both 2019 and 2020. We show 2019 in light blue and 2020 in dark blue to demonstrate just how significant this year has been for mobile apps in the News category. You can read our earlier report covering mobile news consumption for the first half of 2020 here and our second report specifically highlighting the leadup to the U.S. Presidential election here

5. Apps Reduced Ad Revenue Dependence

Many app developers’ bottom lines got hit with a double-whammy in 2020. First, the economic uncertainty due to COVID-19 caused many advertisers to reduce ad spending. And second, Apple announced at WWDC that iOS developers would have to gain permission from end users to share data with third parties, which is expected to reduce CPMs for iOS apps running ads.  Although Google has yet to announce similar privacy measures, there is speculation that Android app developers could face a similar fate. Let’s review what changes app developers made to their business model in light of these two shifts.

Change in Ads-Only Revenue Model in 2020

In the chart above, we analyze the change in share of advertising-only revenue models compared to a January 2020 baseline to understand if app developers are in fact moving away from advertising-supported business models. We separate the two operating systems, with Android on the left and iOS on the right. Typically, Android apps rely more on advertising than iOS apps, largely due to Google simplifying the process of incorporating ads into mobile apps. Given this reliance on advertising as a source of monetization, Android developers were much more impacted by the reduction in ad spend due to COVID-19. However, the  chart shows consistent recovery throughout the year as advertising spend slowly  increased. iOS developers, on the other hand, were less impacted by the reduction in ad spend, but are still moving away from an advertising-only revenue model, likely because of the impending privacy changes Apple is expected to launch in early 2021. You can find our full report on shifting business models for app developers here

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