Is Google Play Catching Apple?

One of Apple’s (NASDAQ:AAPL) few remaining and longest-standing leads is nearing an end, as Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) gets closer to completing its game of catch-up in the app store.

Only six years ago, Apple was the only company in the market with a “smart” phone. Sure, BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY) was around and had its own line of high-end phones, but Apple’s iPhone was still the first of its kind, and more or less invented the new category. Of course, when Google came onto the scene with Android, the new operating system took a little time but still managed to quickly overtake Apple’s own.

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The story went similarly with Apple’s phones and Samsung’s (SSNLF.PK). Aided by its diversity in phone models, Samsung has managed to exceed Apple’s worldwide smartphone sales, and it doesn’t look like Apple will top Samsung again anytime too soon. The next great loss for Apple will likely be its App Store being trumped by Google Play — the native app store for Android.

In May, Apple announced its app store had sold 50 billion apps. That figure includes sales to iPhones, iPads, and iPod touch devices. At the time, there were more than 850,000 apps in the App Store. In comparison, Google’s store had sold 48 billion apps.

With Apple boasting 2 billion app downloads per month and Google claiming 2.5 billion downloads, it would take Google just four more months to catch up to Apple and finally exceed it in app sales. That assumes Google’s app sale rate won’t increase, which may not be true, as Google has consistently been growing its user base.

For Apple, having the most popular app store wasn’t just a point of pride, but rather a key part of its success. Lately, many Android devices have been far exceeding iPhones in terms of hardware performance. Samsung’s latest Galaxy S 4 features higher-end technical specifications than the iPhone 5 in most aspects. Even Samsung’s previous model, the Galaxy S 3, boasted a lot of higher specifications than the iPhone 5, and it came out months before the Apple device.

Apple’s strength in apps has been a great way for it to maintain consumer demand. With popular apps that many people want, customers may flock to Apple because of the reputation of its app store, rather than because of the hardware specifications of its devices. But, if Google’s app store exceeds Apple’s, consumers may take notice, having even more turn away from Apple and toward Google.

The trend has already started with app developers. Now, many developers are making apps for Android first, or developing apps for both operating systems simultaneously. With the Android market offering a bigger audience, it makes sense for app developers to target Android.

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However, Apple is likely to continue beating Google in app revenues. The 200 highest-grossing apps in Apple’s U.S. App Store make about $5.1 million per day. Google Play’s equivalent apps earn less than a quarter of that, suggesting that Apple’s customers are a bit more willing to spend — a potential boon for app developers to keep in mind.

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