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The iPhone’s Top Apps Are Nearly 4x Larger Than Five Years Ago

Each year during Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, the company announces new iOS updates and its latest technologies. Although these updates will undoubtedly change the user experience, they also affect developers who must stay current with subsequent iterations of their apps. This includes satisfying consumer demand in various markets, adjusting to meet new privacy policies on the App Store, and also experimenting with latest-gen hardware and software updates.

With the introduction of these new technologies ultimately comes an increase in app sizes, which have grown substantially as the sophistication of Apple’s software has ballooned. Case in point, according to Sensor Tower App Intelligence data, the top 10 iPhone apps by downloads in the United States for May were 298 percent or nearly four times larger than five years ago, requiring 2.2 gigabytes of storage, compared to about 550 megabytes at the beginning of 2016.

The Top 10 Apps Grow Larger

In our research, we only looked at the core app size, not including additional content or updates that might be downloaded after the app is installed. Our cohort of the top 10 most-downloaded iPhone apps in the U.S. for May included YouTube, TikTok, Messenger, Facebook, Zoom, Netflix, Instagram, Gmail, Google Maps, and Amazon.

Gmail's file size in May 2021 grew 1,797 percent from January 2016, reaching 355 MB.

Apple introduced a new ceiling of 512 GB storage with the iPhone XS, and as some developers have worked to include wider feature sets in their apps, it’s no surprise that the file size has been ballooning. The company also expanded its parameters, increasing the maximum app file size to 4 GB in 2015 and also increasing the cellular download limit on iOS to 200 MB so that consumers can more easily download larger apps on the go.

Gmail Has Seen the Greatest Increase

Perhaps due to Gmail’s expanding feature set, its mobile app saw the most growth in the cohort, growing 1,797 percent—or more than 18x—over the past five years, from about 19 MB to just over 355 MB. In the past, the app has seen an increase in file size whenever Google rolled out significant updates, such as in November 2016 when it climbed from 41 MB to 197 MB, an increase of 378 percent from the previous month as its update included new features such as Undo Send.

Facebook trimmed down Messenger's file size to accommodate older devices.

Out of the top 10 most-downloaded U.S. iPhone apps, Facebook’s Messenger has remained the most lightweight over the past five years. In May 2021, the app weighed in at 116 MB, only 23 percent larger than the 94 MB it took up on devices in January 2016. Its latest file size gives it the second smallest footprint after Netflix, which clocks in at approximately 82 MB.

In March 2020, the app’s size decreased 76 percent over the previous month to about 66 MB, down from approximately 277 MB. Facebook has made a concerted effort to trim down Messenger’s file size to accommodate older devices and those with less storage, which might be particularly appealing to users in the app’s largest market, India. Enticing consumers in India is the reason why the company rolled out pared-down apps such as Facebook Lite and Messenger Lite. Other tech titans have also employed the same strategy, such as Google’s YouTube Go, which promises to enable users to control their data spend.

Top Games Nearly Triple in Size

As shown in a previous in-depth Sensor Tower analysis, the top mobile games on iOS have seen an increase in file size over the last five years. The top 10 games on the U.S. App Store alone grew 197 percent to about 7.6 GB in May 2021 from about 2.6 GB in January 2018. Again, this is only the core file size, and these apps can be much larger once all content is installed.

The cohort of top titles studied included a mix of social and casual games, many of which grew their audiences over the last year as users looked for new ways to interact with friends. Among the most-downloaded games were perennial chart-toppers Roblox, PUBG Mobile, Call of Duty: Mobile, and Fortnite, despite its removal from app stores last year. The other six games were Among Us, Subway Surfers, Helix Jump, Wordscapes, Homescapes, and Hole.io.

To Consolidate or Condense?

Some publishers’ strategies include integrating many major features into one app, such as Gmail which now houses Meet and Chat. Other publishers, such as Facebook, are opting to trim the file sizes of their apps so consumers can access them even on older devices.

It’s clear that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. However, both approaches favor streamlining, whether that’s in paring down an app to the essentials or deprecating multiple apps and consolidating them into one.

In iOS 14, Apple introduced widgets and App Clips, which enable consumers to access a limited set of an app’s functionality without downloading the entire file. That operating system update also introduced the ability to hide apps in the library, which might factor into how users decide to organize their home screens and whether or not to delete certain apps. At WWDC 2021, the company doubled down on widgets with iPadOS 15, adding that functionality to Apple’s tablet devices. When that rolls out in September, developers will have even more ways to whittle down their app sizes if they so choose—or simply to experiment with new user experience flows.

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