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Android overtakes Apple's App Store for free apps

The iPhone-versus-Android battle received a new weapon today, with a report claiming that Google's Android Market has overtaken Apple's App Store in one very important area: free applications for smartphones and tablets.

Apple's App Store, while far from being the first digital distribution service for smartphone applications, is one of the most successful, with conservative estimates putting the total number of apps available through the service at around 400,000 - a significant step ahead of Google's Android Market, which lags behind at around 200,000.

A report by Utrecht-based app market watcher Distimo offers an intriguing insight into the habits of Apple and Google's respective customer bases, however: while Apple leads in overall quantity, Android is the platform of choice for those looking for free apps for their smartphones and tablets.

According to the company's most recent report, the App Store's iPhone section has 121,845 apps available for free download - often using in-app advertising to generate revenue for the developers. By contrast, the Android Market includes 134,342 free apps - giving Android a small but significant lead on its competitor for the first time.

There's good news for Google's mobile platform in the rest of the report, too: its current growth suggests that Apple's App Store won't be king of the hill for much longer. "If all application stores maintain their current growth pace," Distimo's report claims, "approximately five months from now Google Android Market will be the largest store in terms of number of applications followed by the Apple App Store for iPhone and iPad."

The report also suggests that Microsoft's Windows Phone platform will be a major winner over the next few months, despite a somewhat slow start and frosty reception from developers. "At its current growth rate, the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace will be larger than the Nokia Ovi Store and BlackBerry App World before the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace has even been available for a full year," the report predicts.

The news that the Windows Phone Marketplace will overtake Nokia's Ovi Store shouldn't come as a shock: with Nokia agreeing to license Microsoft's Windows Phone platform for its future handsets, developers are jumping ship and abandoning Nokia's Symbian platform in preparation - with a fair percentage choosing to defect to Microsoft's mobile OS offering.

With the mobile market ecosystem continuing to flourish, and popular apps such as Rovio's Angry Birds netting their creators millions in revenue, the battle is far from over - but if Distimo's predictions prove accurate, Apple could well have a major fight on its hands on two fronts, with both Google and Microsoft eating away at the company's headline-grabbing app offerings.