The COVID-19 app economy: crisis & opportunity

covid-19 app economy

Is Coronavirus the death — or the savior — of the mobile economy? We’re seeing the emergence of a new COVID-19 app economy.

In this edition of TechFirst, I talk to Apptopia VP Adam Blacker. Apptopia gathers data on millions of apps globally from the App Store, Google Play, and dozens of other app stores in China, Russia, and India. COVID-19 is changing everything, including mobile. And when it comes to mobile apps, some industries are way up, and some are way down.

Knowing which is which gives us clues into where the economy is going.

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Full transcript: the COVID-19 app economy

John Koetsier: Is Coronavirus the death — or the savior — of the mobile economy?

Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier. COVID-19 is changing everything, all over the world, in our countries, all across the oceans, wherever you happen to be. When it comes to mobile apps, some industries are way up and some are way down.

To talk with us today and discuss what’s going on, what’s happening, we’ve got Adam Blacker from Apptopia. Adam, welcome!

Adam Blacker: Hey everyone. Thank you, thanks for having me, John, always a pleasure.

John Koetsier: Always a pleasure. I think second time, third time, something like that. You’re probably the longest serving correspondent of TechFirst.

Adam Blacker: Excellent.

John Koetsier: Talk to us a little bit about your personal situation. Where are you in the world? How is coronavirus affecting you?

Adam Blacker: Yep, so I’m in Boston, Massachusetts.  A lot of businesses have closed on their own. Apptopia where I work, basically they recommend working from home but the office is technically open if you need to go grab anything, but I’m pretty sure everyone’s working from home.

So, I stocked up on food, I’m in my place safe, working from home. No symptoms right now and so far so good. But I’m trying to get out when I can and walk around the neighborhood.

John Koetsier: And you have an amazing picture of ocean life behind you. I mean … you’re doing okay.

Adam Blacker: It’s keeping me sane, yeah, yeah.

John Koetsier: Let’s talk a little bit about what’s going on in the world. It’s not a good time to be an airline.

Adam Blacker: No, not at all. It’s interesting. The story’s interesting on mobile.

I will say across the board, yes, we’re seeing globally and in the US, sessions and especially new downloads of airline apps are plummeting in the double digits. And that’s to be expected, that’s not crazy. It’s the same for other areas of travel as well. I don’t know, maybe we’ll get into that, like OTAs, hotels, cruise ships especially.

But what’s interesting is some … you would think it would be like a straight fall for these airlines, and what’s actually happening is you’re actually getting some small spikes. And what I think the reason behind that is, is that people are, even though they’re not flying right now, you see pictures on Twitter, airplanes are empty … but they’re checking their mobile app because one, they want to see, well, maybe I can book a flight for the future because prices are probably way down.

Or two, hey, I need to reschedule, I need to rebook, or I need to figure out am I going to fly? So they’re checking their app still, much, much less than before, but there is some mobile action as people are just trying to figure out what’s happening with my plans, you know you schedule travel so far out.

John Koetsier: Yes. Yeah, yeah, I’ve talked to a bunch of people who have been stuck because their particular airline doesn’t have an app, or you can’t cancel on the app, or rebook on the app. So they’re trying to phone, they’re on the line for two hours, bit of a disaster there. Let’s stick with travel since you opened that up, hotels obviously challenged as well.

Adam Blacker: Yeah, exactly.

So we were looking at Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, Intercontinental, just looking globally and they’ve been falling as you can imagine. Again, I do think people are trying to log in and figure out can I rebook? Can I not? I’ve seen emails from hotels explaining that ‘we’ve taken the safety precautions’ but I think people are just nervous.

And so, yeah, they’ve been falling for quite some time, new installs especially. Again, we see usage and sessions kind of meandering, kind of doing some spikes, but in terms of anyone installing the app now, those are just waterfalling a little bit.

John Koetsier: I was thinking the only worse category might be cruise ships. I mean, they’ve been so much in the news as just these petri dishes of virus, and also cruising around and not able to actually land or dock anywhere because no country will accept them. That’s gotta be a challenging app category as well.

Adam Blacker: Cruise ships are crazy, so we’re talking about the two I’ve looked at are Carnival and Royal Caribbean ’cause as far as mobile apps they’re the most prominent. They have the most action on them and we’re talking about drops of up to 80% in terms of new downloads. So Royal Caribbean was for a while in the fourth quarter, averaging around 10,000 downloads a day, and now it’s shooting down to two and I expect to 2,000 downloads a day, and I expect that to even drop further down.

So like drops of 80% exactly as you said, that’s the worst place you could be right now. And I think there’s been news about that and people understand and they’d like to stay away.

John Koetsier: There’s a little bit more nuance news in ride sharing apps, the Ubers and Lyfts of the world, others overseas as well. Some mixed news there depending on what country you’re in, correct?

Adam Blacker: Right. So it’s funny, like as the pandemic has progressed it’s gone country from country, and looking at the app data you kind of see each country go through the same phases.

So not too long ago, I’m going to get back to ride share, but just skipping ahead a teeny bit, not too long ago, you start the US start to prepare, and so what you are seeing is actually like an increase in BJ’s and Costco, right? These wholesale clubs downloads just surged.

And so ride sharing, as you can imagine, first it hit in China. DiDa, DiDi, Hello, those are popular ride sharing apps in China, and those absolutely plummeted, like we’re talking at 200 combined all of them together from November to January, we’re talking like a 200 million session drop between all three of those combined, and they are starting to rebound a little bit right now.

I was looking at a DiDi earlier today. I hope I’m pronouncing that right, by the way, I’m honestly not sure.

John Koetsier: I think you have it right.

Adam Blacker: Yeah, so they are on the rebound, which is nice. So it’s like, oh, there’s kind of hope on the other side. And so you want to see other countries start to do that too like Italy hopefully soon, America. Speaking of America, today I checked the app store ranks for both Uber and Lyft.

Uber’s ranking at 157 and Lyft is ranking at 241. So for Lyft, that’s its lowest rank in the United States app stores since Christmas 2015.

John Koetsier: Wow.

Adam Blacker:  And for Uber, our Apptopia data starts on January 1st, 2015. So for the entirety of Apptopia’s data set this is the lowest that we’ve ever seen Uber ranked. So, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of people who rely on that for income and it’s tough. So I’ve heard rumors, and I hope it’s true, that those companies are trying to help out those workers and provide some stipends to them.

John Koetsier: Yeah, yeah. Interesting. But what coronavirus taketh it also giveth in some sense. If we look at grocery and delivery apps it’s a different picture, correct?

Adam Blacker: Absolutely. So every day right now, Instacart is setting download records for itself. We have a blog post up on it explains that to you. So Walmart Grocery, Instacart, they’re absolutely surging right now.

And to me that’s interesting ’cause I guess it’s that you want to get your groceries delivered and you think like, oh, coming in contact with just maybe one human is better than going to the store and potentially bumping elbows with a ton of people. So I’m guessing that that’s the thought process behind that.

But Shipt is also surging, that is a grocery delivery app that’s actually owned by Target. And even though Walmart Grocery announced, hey, we’re actually getting rid of our Walmart grocery app, they want to roll it into their flagship regular Walmart app, and because they think they’ll attract more users there even though they said, ‘hey, we’re shutting that down’ it’s a slow shutdown.

So they haven’t done it in all markets yet. It’s actually surging and hitting new highs and breaking records every day for itself too. So now Instacart has broken download records for the past four or five days I believe. It’s getting around over 40,000 downloads and today I’m sure it will be even higher. So it’s really interesting. That does contrast with, I don’t know if this is what you’re going to hop into, but it’s interesting because it does contrast with food delivery.

John Koetsier: Yeah.

Adam Blacker: We have seen food delivery apps cooling. And I think the reason is everyone’s like, ‘Hey, go out, buy groceries.’ And so everyone stocked up on groceries and they have enough to survive for a while. So I’ve already spent my money, I don’t necessarily have money left over for food delivery right now, so …

John Koetsier: And food delivery might be seen as a little bit dangerous for some people. Obviously you’re touching containers. There’s somebody who’s making the food. There’s somebody who’s delivering the food and then it comes into your home, right? So I know that we had a little debate in our household about whether we were going to order in pizza a couple nights ago, and what we needed to do to be safe to do that. So people might be worried about that.

Adam Blacker: So wait … that’s interesting. Let’s talk about that for a second, because grocery delivery is booming. Food delivery, so like your Uber Eats is plummeting, but it’s kind of the same thing.

John Koetsier: It is.

Adam Blacker: There’s a person touching your food, putting it in … so like are you … I don’t want to get either right now while I have, I did stock up on groceries, so I’m good. But are you apt to use one more than the other, or is it just like a blanket thing for you?

John Koetsier: Well, we’ve stocked up a little bit. We have a couple of weeks of supplies in case something goes drastically wrong. But honestly, what we’ve seen in even Italy, in places like Wuhan, there was food, there was stock, there were groceries, there were supplies. Maybe not everything that you wanted, but there was stuff. So I’m not too, too worried about that. So we have ordered in a few times, but we haven’t changed our behavior that much right there.

So you’ve mentioned that news apps are way up. Obviously people want to know what’s going on. They want the latest on the numbers. They want the latest on the closures and border stuff that might be happening. Closures for airlines, other things like that.

Adam Blacker: Yeah.

John Koetsier: Let’s talk about restaurants a little bit. That is a bit more of a complex curve that you’ve seen, correct?

Adam Blacker: Yeah, especially in China. So, right when the outbreak happened in January, you saw things like KFC and local Chinese restaurants that I would butcher if I tried to pronounce their names … they, along with coffee shops, right? Starbucks China and Luckin Coffee which is a new but rapidly growing brand in China, it’s called Luckin Coffee.

They plummeted because China shut down, and then more recently, about two weeks ago when things started to slowly reopen, we did start to see those tick up again. Now, it’s not that those restaurants are necessarily open. It’s more that they’re allowing just for mobile pickup. So really the only way to get your KFC or your Starbucks coffee right now in China is to go on your mobile app and order and just kinda come by. I think you get your temperature checked and then you pick up your order and you’re on your way. So those mobile apps are now rising.

But it’s not necessarily because everything’s open, it’s just that they’re taking precautions and saying you can do mobile pickup.

John Koetsier: What’s really interesting to me there is that we’ve had lots of concerns about data, worldwide frankly. Whether there’s good data in the US on who’s infected or who’s not, whether it has been good and accurately reported data in China about what’s going on, and what the scale of the reopen is and everything like that.

What’s interesting to me about this data is it’s actual device level data of what people are doing, what’s going on, what’s happening. And so you see real first hand data that hey, things are starting to open up, they’re starting to come back to some perhaps new normal.

Adam Blacker: Right, exactly. I will caveat that just because of recent news in the space, we at Apptopia do not have device level data in that respect. We do not collect  any personal data like that. Everything we estimate is on the app level. We do talk about daily active users as well, obviously, but it’s not because we’re seeing … John, I’m never going to know if you go into Starbucks and you would never be counted.

John Koetsier: Good clarification.

Adam Blacker: Yeah and I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole right now, but if you guys come across any Apptopia social media posts, you can look and we’ll tell you exactly how we get our data. Nothing to be scared of.

John Koetsier: Excellent, excellent. Well, I appreciate that, wonderful. So let’s talk streaming.

Adam Blacker: Yeah.

John Koetsier: We mentioned that right off as we were prepping for this call, and that’s something a category that you might think would be booming because, hey, guess what, you have all these people who are at home, some like you and me, we’re working still. Doesn’t matter where we are, we’re still working, but some cannot do their job remotely. And so you’d think that streaming would be way up.

Adam Blacker: Sure.

John Koetsier: On the other hand, it’s actually not, correct?

Adam Blacker: That is correct. So there’s a few things here, like one, I think for all of these trends the US really just started to work from home on Monday. I know some people started working at home the week before, but the masses really started just this week.

So there are some trends that we’ve got to see play out, we have to see evolve. And I’m sure you’ll see data coming from us to speak to that, but streaming, we see mobile app data. And so if you’re watching streaming through your mobile app, chances are you are on the go, you’re commuting, you’re somewhere else.

And so people are stuck at home and they’re watching on their smart TVs or their laptops. And so we haven’t seen a huge influx of downloads or things like that.

I will say in China it was a little bit of a different story. We did see some upticks in China, and I think that is more of a cultural thing, just that China is a much more mobile focused country, and I think they’re just used to using it more and used to watching on their phones more. And so we did see some increases in China, I’ll say that, but not really as much for other countries, not really for the United States.

And that brings me to, again, what we discussed earlier is like Quibi is launching I think April 15th, or in April? Quibi is quick bites for those of you who haven’t heard of it, and it’s meant to be consumed on the go. It’s episodes of 10 minutes or less and it’s not available on your smart TV. You will not be able to watch it on your smart TV, just your smartphone. And I wonder if they’re sweating a little bit, thinking you know, are people going to be back on the go and able to consume our content?

John Koetsier: Well that’s a really interesting one. We’ve seen a lot of big movies being canceled, we’ve seen some movie studios say, ‘hey, you know what, we’re going to release first run stuff directly to the home via our apps’ and everything like that. And I wonder if we’ll see something from Quibi that will say, ‘hey, you know what, we’re going to delay a little bit until things are sort of back to some level of normal, and our value proposition which we designed for people on the go, will be more relevant.’

Adam Blacker: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Yeah, I wonder if … I’ll have to watch out. I wonder if they will delay. And I saw what you’re talking about, that thing from Universal, they’re like, ‘hey, there’s some things in theaters right now and you can rent them if you want.’ Which is, that’s an interesting move.

John Koetsier: I think that’s the way of the future, honestly, I mean coronavirus or no coronavirus.

Adam Blacker: Sure.

John Koetsier: It’s insane that we can’t have day one access wherever we want to have it, and you can price it at different levels, but I think that’s the leading edge right there.

Adam Blacker: So interesting.

John Koetsier: Let’s kind of sum up a little bit and ask you to prognosticate a little bit.

Adam Blacker: Okay.

John Koetsier: Are we seeing some new normals, and what are the long term impacts do you think of some of the trends we’re seeing right now?

Adam Blacker: Yeah. Wow. So I think in terms of a new normal, I think when this thing ends it’ll probably be a slow end, not all of a sudden one day it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s over, everyone go outside.’ I think we’re going to see life go back to the way it was in some respects. The respects that I think it might be changed forever are more of the remote work and school. So there’s tons of classroom apps that have been downloaded for teachers to communicate remotely with their students.

And then there’s a lot of just learning apps that parents can download, especially if you have younger children. It’s really hard to get them to sit in front of a screen and listen to their teacher. That’s really more for older students, like in high school and middle school.

So for elementary kids, I think remote classroom is not great. And so parents are downloading these educational apps like ABC Mouse and Epic Learning to I guess homeschool essentially.

So I think maybe people, depending on how long this lasts, will get comfortable with remote work, remote school and at-home learning. And I think those will be industries and things that are here to stay. Obviously, I’m sure you guys have seen Zoom. It’s like the talk of the town now, it’s the thing everyone’s using. And I think that that impact on their business will not be temporary. I think that will last as people realize, hey, remote work works.

John Koetsier: Absolutely. Interesting. Well, thank you so much, Adam. Really appreciate your time!

Adam Blacker: Thanks, thanks for having me.

John Koetsier: So thanks for joining us on TechFirst.

My name is John Koetsier. I appreciate you being along for the ride. Whatever platform you’re on, please like, subscribe, share, comment, or all of the above. If you’re listening on the podcast later on, please rate it, review it, that’d be a massive help.

Thank you so much. Until next time … this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.