The Chinese and American Apps Winning the Next Billion Users

One irony of US-China technology competition is that much of it isn’t taking place in either country. Instead, it plays out in dozens of developing countries around the world where American and Chinese technology companies compete to win over what they call “the next billion users.”

The business case for these companies is clear, but this competition between American, Chinese, and local technology firms also holds major implications for geopolitical competition and the future global technology landscape. Whether an Indonesian teenager chooses to record himself dancing on TikTok or Instagram might seem like a trivial question, but the apps used in these markets constitute a crucial pillar of technological soft power and influence. Cultural and political values are deeply embedded in the design and operation of these apps, including norms around privacy, censorship, and transparency.

While the US foreign policy community has focused extensively on 5G infrastructure and artificial intelligence, it has not paid sufficient attention to the question of adoption of Chinese and American consumer tech apps in emerging markets.

For this preliminary exploration of this competitive dynamic, I rely on a unique dataset of the ten most-downloaded apps in six key emerging markets in two years: 2015 and 2019. (The dataset was provided by Sensor Tower, a leading market intelligence firm for apps.) Below are three core takeaways from the aggregate data, followed by a deeper dive into each.

Methodology notes can be found below each figure, and a link to the original data for each country is included at the bottom.

One important preliminary note on the scope of the data: these lists represent the most downloaded non-gaming apps, and thus do not include apps that come pre-installed with most Android phones (Gmail, Google Chrome, etc.) and Apple phones (iMessage, Apple Maps, etc.).

Core Takeaways:

  1. US apps are still dominant, though Chinese apps have gained substantial ground in these markets over the past four years.
  2. Chinese apps have taken the lead in by far the largest emerging market: India.
  3. While US dominance is heavily reliant on a single company—Facebook—China’s market share is composed of a more diverse set of companies.

US and Chinese App Market Share of Downloads in Six Emerging Markets, 2019*

world - The Chinese and American Apps Winning the Next Billion Users

Notes: “Market share” refers to the percentage of total downloads out of the top ten non-gaming apps in each country, not downloads of all apps in those countries. The data includes downloads from the App Store (Apple) and the Google Play Store, and does not include apps that come pre-installed on Android and Apple phones.
Source: Sensor Tower.

Takeaway 1: US apps are still dominant, though Chinese apps have gained substantial ground in many of these emerging markets over the past four years.

Figures 1.1 & 1.2 China vs US Market Share of Top 10 App Downloads in 2015 and 2019

Notes: *“Market share” refers to the percentage of total downloads out of the top ten non-gaming apps in each country, not downloads of all apps in those countries. The data includes downloads from the App Store (Apple) and the Google Play Store, and does not include apps that come pre-installed on Android and Apple phones. 2015 data for Nigeria and Egypt is from the App Store only.
Source: Sensor Tower.

As shown above, US apps still lead Chinese apps’ market share by margins of 2- or 3-to-1. Yet in just four years, Chinese apps have gained substantial ground in all but one market (Mexico). Local market apps have continued to struggle to crack into the top ten list, comprising just 5% of downloads across these countries in both 2015 and 2019.

Takeaway 2: Chinese apps have taken the lead in by far the largest emerging market: India

In 2015, Chinese apps accounted for just three of the top ten most downloaded apps in India. By 2019, they took six of the top ten spots, with Bytedance’s TikTok taking the top spot. Because of the size of the Indian market – more app downloads than any country outside of China – the gains by Chinese apps there brought it to near-parity with the US in total app downloads across all six countries (49% for the US apps vs. 42% for Chinese apps).

Figure 2. Top Ten Most Downloaded Non-Gaming Apps in India, 2015 vs. 2019Notes: The data includes downloads from the App Store (Apple) and the Google Play Store, and does not include apps that come pre-installed on Android and Apple phones.
Source: Sensor Tower.

Takeaway 3: While US dominance is heavily reliant on a single company—Facebook—China’s market share is composed of a more diverse set of companies.

Facebook’s apps—WhatsApp, Messenger, Facebook and Instagram—are omnipresent in these markets, taking all of the top four slots in Brazil. Taken together, Facebook’s four apps comprise a staggering 87% of US market share of the top ten apps in these markets.

In contrast, downloads of Chinese apps are less concentrated in one company. Bytedance’s two apps on the lists—TikTok and Helo—were responsible for around 40% of the Chinese market share. Perhaps notably, of the “BAT” tech giants, only Alibaba’s two apps—UC Browser and Vmate—command significant market share. No apps by Baidu or Tencent make the top 10 downloads in any of the countries.

Figure 3. ByteDance and Alibaba Contribute the Most to Chinese Market Share*Notes: “Market share” refers to the percentage of total downloads out of the top ten non-gaming apps in each country, not downloads of all apps in those countries.The absence of Tencent apps such as WeChat may be surprising, but Tencent does well in these markets with its gaming apps, which are not included on these lists.

Conclusion

This data provides just one window into a far more complex set of questions, but it points toward a shifting landscape. While US companies continue to hold a substantial lead in most emerging markets—granting a foothold for American norms and technological soft power—that lead is no longer guaranteed indefinitely.

In future pieces, we’ll further explore the implications of this shift for all countries involved, as well as policy responses that could help promote leadership in these markets.

To see the lists of the top 10 most downloaded apps in each of these countries click here.

Matt Sheehan is a Fellow at MacroPolo. You can find his work on tech policy, AI, and Silicon Valley here.


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