App Bonanza or Analyst Bonanza?

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In the last two days, two forecasts informed us about the value of the mobile app market in – convenient as ever – the distant future that is 2013. US analyst firm Yankee Group predicts the US app mobile market to be worth $4.2bn by then. Today, British analyst Wireless Expertise (run by former Netsize exec Anuj Kanna) topped this easily by predicting the (global) app market size to be $16.6bn by that time (free copy of the report here).

I can hear your moans…

However, let’s have a look at the numbers then, shall we? At the end of 2008, there were 4.1bn mobile phones in the market. Because apps tend to thrive most on smartphones (and the analysts seem to thrive on them, too), let’s have a look at that sub-sector. I would estimate the smartphone share to being somewhat under 10% (Symbian claims c. 250m devices in market, Apple has some 30-odd million, so RIM, Windows Mobile, Android, Palm, etc should probably be OK with the balance of some 100m). In Europe and the US, the share is much larger but in the big volume markets China and India it is bound to be much smaller, at least for the time being. Global smartphone shipments in 2008 were around 140m.

If we estimate a 20% growth year-on-year for smartphones (vs. 5% for the overall phone market, which seems to be loosely in line with the general dynamic), then we would end up with something like 900m smartphones by 2013. Yankee Group predicts that smartphones in the US will quadruple by then (from 40m to 160m) and does not seem to be very far off. Wireless Expertise thinks the global number will be 1.6bn, which again, might not be that far off.

The question is however if people will really download this much stuff: Yankee Group predicts that the actual value of the market will rise 10-fold and that the average price point of an app will be $2.37. Why that is so, you ask? Well, pay $495 and you will know; I don’t…

Now, the good folks of Wireless Expertise see the thing quadrupling until 2013. They do, however, count “ordinary” mobile games as they are being sold through carriers amongst the apps, which means that their starting point is higher, namely $4.6bn in 2009, so they’re looking at this quadrupling. They raise some smart points on app stores and how they (well, it) changed the way users access and consume content, how carriers will need to look for alternatives to increasingly commoditized voice and messaging propositions, etc. But why there should be a 400% rise in e.g. traditional J2ME mobile games remains – whilst it would be wonderful – pretty much in the dark.

Talking of J2ME and feature phones: I do not know how they are being woven into the equation but there would certainly be a wide field for any self-respecting crystal-ball-reader here: on the one hand, app consumption on such devices has traditionally been fairly shabby but, on the other hand, this could well change if connectivity, bandwidth, UI and the right price plans would come together to offer a compelling mobile web solution. So then apps would need to be translated into widgets or something like that. Would users then pay for them? Don’t know. Or would it be the “Freemium” model according to which “Free gets you to a place where you can ask to paid?”

The challenge of these reports is their “simplified” assumptions: if only one of them fails, you go “oops”, and your prediction is halved (or worse). On Wireless Expertise’s case, this is particularly clear: their assumption is that there will be a dual strategy of (presumably OEM-driven app stores) and mobile web-based widget stores. Now, they further assume that Ovi, Windows Market, etc will all be as successful as Apple’s App Store. By early (anecdotal) data, this could not be further from the truth (see here for what that may mean). Nokia in particular struggles to get its head around a viable and compelling media strategy (cf. here and here). And hence the beautiful hockey stick would actually fall flat on its face.

Now, I am not predicting total doom and gloom, in the contrary. I do think that Apple’s wake-up call has brought a much-needed new wave of innovation and I also believe that this will be successfully incorporated by some carriers and OEMs. But by all of them? Not very likely.

And so we see: the reports are a touch on the optimistic side when it comes to volumes and assumptions. But, hey, that’s their job, I guess, and after all they have at least dropped their masks now: Yankee Group call it fairly openly a “gold rush”. And what happens then we had been shown a long time ago: you end up eating your shoelaces. So maybe this is less of an app bonanza and more of an analyst bonanza then…