A lucky few developers have been able to make a living by selling their apps to mobile-obsessed customers, but according to new data from Gartner, about 89 per cent of apps downloaded this year will be of the cost-free variety.
Worldwide mobile app downloads will top 45.6 billion in 2012, but only 5 billion will be paid apps, Gartner concluded.
"In terms of the apps that consumers are buying, 90 per cent of the paid-for downloads cost less than $3 (£1.90) each," Sandy Shen, research director at Gartner, said in a statement. "Similar to free apps, lower-priced apps will drive the majority of downloads. Apps between 99 cents (60p) and $2.99 (£1.86) will account for 87.5 per cent of paid-for downloads in 2012, and 96 per cent by 2016."
Apple's App Store will be the big winner this year. Gartner estimated that iOS users will download more than 21 billion apps in 2012, up 74 per cent from 2011.
"Apple's market share is the largest, considering its App Store accounts for 25 per cent of available apps in all stores," said Brian Blau, research director at Gartner. "The number of apps available is driven by an increasing number of stores in the market today that include platform owners, device vendors, communication service providers (CSPs) and others who want to offer core mobile app services. These stores will see their combined share of total downloads increase, but demand for apps overall will still be dominated by Apple, Google and Microsoft."
Still, some stores - like Amazon's Appstore or the Facebook App Center - have attracted users with their brands. Meanwhile, China has seen a boom of independent Android stores thanks to the lack of Google Play, Shen said.
"We expect to see more new entrants to the market, aiming to deepen relationships with their customers and/or to capture some of this growth market," she said.
Gartner estimated that by 2016, mobile users could be downloading up to 309 million apps each year, 93 per cent of which will be free apps.
In-App Payments FTW
For those looking to boost the money-making potential of their apps, Gartner said in-app payments are the way to go.
"This is a different approach from upfront payment where users pay and download, and can be disappointed by the experience and never come back," the firm said. "In-app purchasing opens the door to a recurring revenue stream for developers, but app performance and design will always be the most important factor when attracting new users and keeping them satisfied."
By 2016, Gartner estimated that in-app payments will make up 41 per cent of app store revenue, and that apps offering in-app options will jump from 5 per cent in 2011 to 30 per cent in the next four years.
"App stores should support in-app purchases as soon as possible as this offers a new path of monetisation, and helps to attract developers as they attempt to extend an app's momentum by providing easy access to upgraded services and functionality," Blau said.
Apple is expected to unveil its next-gen iPhone tomorrow, and an analyst recently estimated that the Cupertino-based company could sell up to 10 million new iPhones during their first week on the market, which will likely translate to a lot of app downloads.
The Android-based Samsung Galaxy S III, however, has already sold 20 million units after only 100 days on the market.