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YouTube is the frontrunner in the mobile streaming wars, and it’s not even close

YouTube is the frontrunner in the mobile streaming wars, and it’s not even close


YouTube is top dog when it comes to keeping people’s attention

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Here’s a fun number to think about: in 2019, YouTube dominated 70 percent of the total time people spent on their phones watching the top five entertainment apps. It’s also the only one of those apps (measured among Android phones, which dominate 75 percent of phone usage worldwide) that isn’t specific to China — an area where Google doesn’t even operate.

The data from AppAnnie’s latest report shows just how far ahead YouTube is on the mobile front — where more people are spending their time, especially teenagers and young adults. It’s something that companies like Netflix, WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal, and Disney will have to take into account as they compete not only for the best content, but for people’s attention.

“With YouTube dominating 70 percent of time spent in the top five streaming apps, the platform proves that it is still holding its weight among the acceleration of new video streaming platforms — particularly as it was an early pioneer in the market,” AppAnnie mobile analyst Lexi Sydow wrote in a new report.

It’s important to recognize that YouTube and Netflix do different things

It’s important to recognize that YouTube and Netflix do different things. YouTube is a platform for user-generated content that relies on advertising revenue and its creator base; Netflix is a subscription service that invests billions of dollars into scripted and unscripted entertainment. As more subscription-based streaming services (Disney Plus, HBO Max), advertising-based streaming services (Pluto TV), and free video apps (TikTok) enter the market, competing with each other comes down to who can capture people’s attention the most consistently. Netflix’s competition isn’t just with Disney or WarnerMedia, which offer similar content; it’s also with Google.

“We do wonder in the fullness of time, ‘Can we be as big as YouTube?’” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said in July 2019. “YouTube is seven times larger than us, roughly, in viewing hours, and a phenomenal service. Of course, it’s free. So the real question is, can we produce enough content that people are willing to pay for?”

Time spent on YouTube and frequent visits to the site greatly outweighed time spent on other popular streaming mobile apps — most notably, Netflix — according to an MIT report from 2019. A 2019 report from networking equipment firm Sandvine also stated that YouTube makes up 37 percent of all downstream mobile internet traffic around the world. While Netflix saw growth around the world and often dominated app downloads within the entertainment space in specific territories (Brazil, South Korea, France, Germany), people were still spending less time on streaming services like Netflix on their phone; they were, however, increasing the amount of time they spent on their phones for apps like TikTok and YouTube.

Part of that has to do with how people use YouTube. Its videos are shorter than what’s available on Netflix or Hulu, but not as short as what’s on social apps that include video content like TikTok and Instagram. YouTube is also free so the access barrier is much lower. Since YouTube relies on content from its user base and sees a whopping 500 hours of content uploaded every minute, there’s a seemingly never-ending selection of local videos for people in every country to watch. YouTube can serve its global audience far faster and easier than Netflix can.

There’s another advantage that YouTube has over Netflix: music streaming. AppAnnie notes that YouTube Music saw massive growth between December 2017 and December 2019. Google CEO Sundar Pichai touted the growth during a recent call with investors, noting that the service has hit 15 million subscribers. The crossover between YouTube proper and YouTube Music helps keep people in YouTube’s ecosystem, Sydow wrote, and increases time spent on the platform.

The surge in popularity for other apps, most notably TikTok, still isn’t hurting YouTube, but it is putting a small dent in Netflix. TikTok, the social media app created by Chinese company ByteDance, saw three-digit percentage growth over the last two years. Most notably, AppAnnie reports that it probably played a factor in taking time away from Netflix. Sydow wrote that TikTok’s growth signified that “competition in the video streaming space is heating up not only by traditional companies launching standalone streaming services, but from social media companies carving new mobile-first consumption pathways.” Again, like YouTube, TikTok also has the advantage of being free to use.

All of this data reiterates that YouTube is a giant in the online video space and monopolizes a lot of what people watch. It also, however, presents an interesting question about incoming streaming services like Quibi. Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman’s streaming app is attempting to take hold of people spending more time on their phones to watch things and cater to mobile consumption. Quibi series will have a higher production value than videos on YouTube or TikTok, and they will run anywhere between four and 10 minutes, which is much shorter than Netflix and Disney Plus. The goal isn’t to compete with the Netflixes of the world; it’s to serve an audience looking for brief entertainment on their phones that’s more traditional than what’s available now.

Whether it works will take time to see. What’s evident is that more people are watching things on their phones than ever before, and there’s going to be intense competition as more apps that cater to mobile viewing enter the field. Netflix and YouTube and Quibi are making different things, but they’re all competing for your attention, and that’s where the real war exists.