APP-TENTION SEEKING: Trivial updates can boost downloads

Developers of mobile applications use trivial updates to bring more attention to their products. That is the main finding of research by Stefano Comino, Fabio Manenti and Franco Mariuzzo, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s annual conference in Brighton in March 2016. Analysing data on the top 1,000 apps in iTunes and Google Play – where apps are updated on average every 59 and 28 days respectively – their study finds that developers use updates to increase the ''buzz'' surrounding their apps and make them more visible.

But there are noticeable differences between the two platforms: iTunes apps are downloaded more frequently after being updated, but Google Play apps are not. The latter outcome may be because Google Play''s lack of quality control leads to apps being ''over-updated'' to the point where users stop noticing.

The number of mobile apps available to download has risen to almost four million, three quarters of which are on Google Play or iTunes. These stores are ''hyper-competitive'' – just about every app is competing with someone else to do the same basic function.

This means that reviews are incredibly important – a series of negative reviews at launch can be enough to kill an app, so developers try to grab attention. One solution can be updates, which brings apps to users'' attention even when the update itself just contains minor bug fixes.


As of July 2015, the number of mobile applications (apps) available for download in leading app stores reached the astonishing figure of almost four million. Google Play has the largest market share with 1.6 million apps, followed by iTunes with 1.5 million apps (www.Statista.com). The combined number of apps available in the Amazon Appstore, Windows Phone Store and Blackberry World amounts to 870,000 different apps, which is just over half the number offered by Google Play.

Other than being spectacular for the outstanding growth in number of new products from 2008 to 2015, the app market is unique for its level of competition – an example of a hyper-competitive market. If you are a producer of a mobile application, you are certainly aware that your mobile application will compete for attention with many other mobile applications, perhaps not all four million apps, but certainly a sizeable number of them.

In this challenging market, producers of mobile applications are under the scrutiny of users via reviews. A sequence of negative reviews when a mobile application is launched can be enough to kill the app. Developers react to this tough environment by employing strategies aimed at grabbing users'' attention and maintaining reviews at a high standard.

One strategy that is widely used to fulfil this task is to update existing versions so as to trigger some buzz around existing mobile applications, with the ultimate goal of increasing app visibility and keep users engaged, disguising a hidden strategy to stimulate downloads. Thus updates are used to stimulate demand, often without making substantial changes to existing products.

App developers release new versions of software (updates) at an extremely high frequency. Updates may represent a significant improvement in functionality (major updates) or they may simply fix bugs (minor updates).

Using six months of monthly data relating to the top 1,000 apps distributed in Google Play and iTunes for five European countries, this study looks at when and why updates occur. The researchers provide evidence of the frequency of the release of updates.

On average, apps in Google Play are updated every 28 days, while in iTunes this occurs every 59 days. In their empirical analysis, the authors test whether updates occur in a period of downturn in growth and study whether different quality controls in iTunes and Google play affect update decisions. Their main results are:

• Updates have a strategic flavour, as developers use them to increase the ''buzz'' surrounding their apps, in an attempt to improve users'' engagement, and increase or maintain high app visibility.

• While on iTunes updates trigger further growth in the number of downloads, on Google Play their effect is not significant. This result is consistent with the prediction of the theoretical model, which suggests that the lack of quality control by Google Play can lead to ''excessive updating'': developers release many low quality updates, which tend not to affect downloads.

• There is complementarity among apps developed by the same developer.

A general underlying issue is how developers of software applications profit from their innovative products. The app economy is one of the most dynamic segments of today''s technology sectors and understanding the mechanisms for appropriating the returns of innovation is crucial for any policy option that may follow.

While the focus of this study is mainly on studying the role of updates as one of the main developer strategies to perpetrate growth, future research can be directed to study the behavioural implications of updates. Do users know what happens when an update takes place? Do users receive incorrect signals on the underlying quality of the app when an update occurs? Future research can address these questions.

Update Management in Mobile Applications: iTunes v Google Play – Stefano Comino, Fabio Manenti and Franco Mariuzzo