What Are Lite Apps and Why Are They Getting So Popular?

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

There’s a new category of popular apps in the app store, and chances are pretty good that it’s not one of the app categories that you’d initially imagine. As spotted by Dean Takahashi at VentureBeat, an analysis of fourth-quarter app activity by app monetization, discovery, and analytics company IronSource, revealed that lite versions of apps are gaining popularity in the app store.

Games dominated the top apps, followed by apps for shopping, tools, photography, and lifestyle. Lite versions, which are free apps that offer stripped-down versions of paid apps, or apps that offer deeper functionality at the cost of more memory space and device resources, did particularly well. As Takahashi explains, lite apps use less than a megabyte of memory, and are generally designed to function on 2G networks and in areas with limited network connectivity. Tel Aviv-based IronSource said that its “Fastest Growing Apps” platform aggregates trend information from nearly a billion sources every month.

Lite apps have been available in major app stores for years. Doug Aamoth reported for Time back in 2010 that lite apps were appearing in the iOS App Store. At the time, they seemed intended to function as feature-restricted versions of more capable apps, offered to entice users to buy the full version of the app. Apple enhanced that perception at the time by launching a “Try Before You Buy” section in the App Store, where it aggregated lite apps and organized them by featured listings, most popular listings, and release dates. Aamoth noted at the time that “in a perfect world,” users would see one version of each app, with some kind of restricted trial or refund period  something that more than five years later, Apple has yet to implement.

In the time since, lite apps have emerged as a useful tool for users on slow networks or with low-end smartphones, which often lack the memory or battery life to load flashier, more sophisticated apps. Facebook launched its Facebook Lite app in early 2015, and Josh Constine reported for TechCrunch that the “bare-bones, low resolution version” of Facebook’s Android app was designed to work well “on crummy networks or outdated phones,” and to burn through “much less data than its normal smartphone apps.”

Facebook Lite is designed specifically for users in the developing world, whom the social network is depending on to achieve the milestone of onboarding its next billion users. Facebook Lite is designed to function on 2G networks, needs less than 1MB of memory to install, and is considerably more efficient with data usage than the standard Facebook app. The app doesn’t support data-intensive features like videos, or Nearby Friends, but enables users in developing countries and in regions where connectivity is bad to access the basic features of the social network.

In the time since Facebook introduced the lite version of its social networking app, other important companies have followed suit with lite apps of their own, among them apps like the lite version of LINE, and their efforts are paying off. In November, Cheetah Mobile, which is the world’s leading mobile tools provider, jumped into the Lite apps category with a lightweight version of its Clean Master app. Clean Master Lite was designed for phones with less than 1GB of memory, and has a small installation size of just 3.61MB. The app is popular in emerging markets like India, and was December’s sixth-fastest-growing app in the 500,000 to 1 million download range.

AdGate Media‘s Dan Sapozhnikov recently reported for the Huffington Post that offering a free lite app is the latest version of an old but popular strategy for generating app revenue. Such a version enables users to try out an app, without gaining access to more advanced features that the developer wants to be paid for. After trying out the lite version of an app, users can then opt to upgrade to the paid, premium version of the app, with all of the app’s features enabled.

IronSource cofounder and chief marketing officer Omer Kaplan told VentureBeat:

“The increase of Lite apps being developed by important players in the app industry is a clear identifier that this is a growing field with the potential to become a key factor in successfully accessing emerging markets.” He added, “With massive populations and smartphone adoption at an all-time high, these markets represent a huge opportunity for app developers, and building Lite versions of their apps is a critical step in taking advantage of this huge potential.”

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