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Apple and Google crowd out the competition with default apps

A new study shows how Apple and Google’s preinstalled apps dominate their mobile platforms

If you use an iPhone or Android phone, chances are the majority of your most-used apps were made by Apple and Google.

That’s the takeaway from a new Comscore study that ranks the popularity of preinstalled iOS and Android apps, such as Apple’s Messages, alongside apps made by other developers. The results show that the majority of apps people use on their phones in the US come preinstalled by either Apple or Google. The first-of-its-kind report was commissioned by Facebook, one of Apple’s loudest critics, and shared exclusively with The Verge.

Preinstalled services dominate when it comes to basics like weather, photos, and clocks, according to the report, suggesting these categories will be difficult for other apps to compete in. Defaults don’t win out exclusively, though: Apple Maps and Music don’t appear on the iOS list at all, and Gmail makes the iOS list several entries below Apple Mail.

The timing, as Facebook likely intentioned, is apt: Apple and Google are increasingly under scrutiny for how they favor their own services over competitors like Spotify. US lawmakers are currently reviewing a new set of bills designed to curb the power of Big Tech, including legislation that could potentially bar Apple and Google from giving their services the upper hand against rivals.

The pushback stems from how Apple and Google bundle their apps and services with their mobile operating systems in ways that some of their competitors think is unfair. The criticism is harsher against Apple, given that it more tightly controls the apps that come preinstalled on the iPhone and doesn’t allow developers to circumvent its App Store.

At the same time, it has been difficult to know how popular these preinstalled apps are relative to apps made by third-party developers since Apple and Google don’t disclose user numbers for their default apps. Research firms regularly track the popularity of apps that are available for download in app stores, but Comscore’s study is the first real attempt at charting how default mobile apps compete against other developers.

You can view the full interactive version here.

To make the report last December, Comscore used data it regularly gathers from apps and websites alongside a survey of roughly 4,000 people asking about the default apps they used during the month of November. The results show that 75 percent of the top 20 apps on iOS in the US were made by Apple, while Google made 60 percent of the top apps on Android. The top four apps on both platforms were made by their respective parent company.

Facebook is the only outside developer with more than one app on the iOS list and the only developer with three apps on the list for Android. Randomly, a staggering 78 million people used Apple’s Calculator app — more than the users of Gmail on Android.

Facebook paid for the Comscore study to show the “impact of preinstalled apps on the competitive app ecosystem,” according to company spokesman Joe Osborne. The social network’s executives have long criticized Apple’s limitations on third-party developers for hindering their ability to distribute mobile games and compete effectively with iMessage.

Apple rejected the report’s findings. “This Facebook-financed survey from December 2020 was narrowly tailored to give the false impression that there’s little competition on the App Store,” an Apple spokesperson told The Verge. “In truth, third-party apps compete with Apple’s apps across every category and enjoy large scale success.”

The spokesperson said the survey’s methodology was “seriously flawed in a number of ways” and that the results contradicted Comscore’s recent April 2021 rankings on app usage. But those rankings didn't attempt to factor in the usage of all preinstalled apps like the Facebook-commissioned study did.

Google did not respond to requests for comment.

Besides Comscore showing app usage in the US for a particular window of time, there are a couple of other quirks in its methodology to note: it did not include browsers such as Apple’s Safari or Google’s Chrome in the rankings or what it calls “embedded operating system features” like Siri. And results for Android weren’t gathered by specific phone manufacturers, meaning app usage isn’t broken out for Samsung phones relative to the Google Pixel, for example.

Still, the report points to the power platform owners have over what apps are used on their devices. It’s not just the app stores that serve as gatekeepers, but the phones themselves.

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