The rise of Lite apps: Why lightweight mobile apps are growing in popularity
Mobile Applications

The rise of Lite apps: Why lightweight mobile apps are growing in popularity

Thanks to the relentless juggernaut of progress (or maybe just Moore’s Law) our mobile phones get better every year. You’d be hard pressed to really notice it, however, as mobile applications continue to grow at an equivalent pace: the size of the top 10 iOS apps have grown by 1,000% since 2013. On top of that, companies are looking to new data and memory-hungry applications around Voice and Augmented/Virtual Reality. But elsewhere in the world, things are very different.

With the odd local exception, smartphones are now outselling featurephones globally, and are getting cheaper; it’s quite possible to buy devices for less than a meal in a restaurant but these low-budget offerings are often poor in performance.

And coverage in regions such as Africa and South America is sparse, and even in countries such as India where there is coverage, speeds are often well below what you’d expect in more mature markets. Whether by drones, balloons, satellites, or good old fashioned base stations, companies such as Facebook and Google are slowly but continually looking to new ways to increase the level and quality of coverage in such regions.

But for now, challenges around connectivity and hardware limitations make enjoying the kind of mobile experience you enjoy on the way to work out of reach for the majority of people in the world. So what can companies do to make their services actually usable for the billions of people who don’t have the latest iPhone in a 4G-connected metropolis?


The rise of Lite apps

The answer is Lite apps: stripped back, lightweight versions of their originals more suited to the limited performance, memory, and connectivity requirements of emerging markets. These apps take up less than a few MB of memory and are optimised for areas with 3G or even 2G connections. While they all share similar traits, there are different types of Lite apps: Bare-bones versions of mobile apps; scaled down trial versions of apps; and low-code enterprise apps with single use cases.

“Lite apps in the sense of bare-bones versions of mobile apps are the most common,” says Magnus Jern, CIO of mobile services company DMI, “and an obvious investment for companies with a global audience or predominant customer base in emerging markets because of the popularity of low-end smart phones, less reliable internet access and high data costs.”

Although the concept has been around for a number of years, this trend is being spearheaded by the big companies that have already conquered the traditional markets. Given its already-mentioned investment in infrastructure in remote or under-connected regions, it’s no surprise Facebook also has plenty of lightweight versions of its apps.

FB Zero – a text only version of the social network – launched in 2010. Facebook Lite launched in 2015, crossed 100 million users last year to become the company’s fastest growing app, and passed 200 million downloads in March. Messenger Lite has seen more than 50 million downloads since its 2016 launch.

Google (and by extension, parent company Alphabet), are another company backing up investments in connectivity solutions with offerings of lightweight services. As well as light Search, News, YouTube and even AMP offerings, the company has a stripped-back version of its Operating System called Android Go (there’s also the company’s Android One series of phones).

Microsoft have Lite offerings for both LinkedIn and Skype (but not Bing), while Twitter launched its own version this year. Line launched its own version back in 2015, and Tencent is testing ‘Little Program’ services for its WeChat app. There’s also the veteran Opera Lite, Shazam Lite, and Clean Master Lite from Cheetah Mobile. The Hermit app from California’s Chimbori Labs converts websites into mini apps.

“Many apps have been getting bloated and bloated over time, and users started noticing the negative effect on battery life, phone performance, and download times,” says Manas Tungare, Developer at Chimbori. “It is simply not sustainable for users who pay for bandwidth per MB to download 100MB+ updates every two-three weeks.”

“As smartphones became less of a luxury item and more of a commodity, we have many more users get online from places and countries where internet bandwidth is not as plentiful as others. As large companies seek to grow in these new markets, they must adapt their products to survive.”

According to app monetisation & analytics company IronSource, Lite app downloads have exploded since 2015, moving beyond just the likes of APAC, India, and Latin America to include the Middle East and Russia. And so long as app size and data requirements keep growing – something very likely to happen - this trend is likely to continue and accelerate.

“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,” IronSource co-founder Omer Kaplan told VentureBeat last year.

“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.”



Lite apps make good business sense

“The success of Lite apps has already been proven by Facebook, Twitter and Line,” says DMI’s Jern. “Companies such as Flipkart, Aliexpress and Telegram have also had success with Progressive Web Apps (PWAs), which have recently become the most popular and efficient way of delivering Lite Apps due to their speed and reliability regardless of network conditions.”

He does admit, however, that Lite apps are of ‘generally limited benefit’ to companies with focus on North America or Europe. He’s not the only person that thinks the concept of Lite apps isn’t for every company.

In April it was claimed that Snap CEO Evan Spiegal said Snapchat is an app “only for rich people” and that he didn’t want to “expand into poor countries like India”. Likewise, Apple’s premium iOS experience – where more money is made from fewer users compared to the ‘for the masses’ approach of Android – has seen the company do pretty well for itself. But at a time when companies base entire business plans around reaching critical mass before making profit, this is an approach few can afford to take and most will want to reach as many people as possible.

“For businesses, the most important advantage is being able to offer their services to many more people,” adds Chimbori’s Tungare. “Simply by keeping their app lean (or launching a separate lean variant of their flagship app), business can reach into emerging markets.”

There are also technical reasons which could appeal to businesses.

“A major problem seen by many app developers is that users don't update their installed apps on a timely basis, requiring app developers to maintain server-side support for older versions of apps for much longer. If these apps were smaller to download, more users would update more often, making the maintenance much easier.”


Also read:
The race to connect Africa through satellite technology
Facebook drones: ‘There are no rules for this.’
Microsoft seeks Indian customers with exclusive Skype Lite app


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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect. Writes about all manner of tech from driverless cars, AI, and Green IT to Cloudy stuff, security, and IoT. Dislikes autoplay ads/videos and garbage written about 'milliennials'.  

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