How Google Play is Closing the App Gap With Apple

As huge as YouTube is around the globe, it’s not the only clout Google brings to the content business. Google Play is available on more than 1 billion devices in over 190 countries thanks to its anchor position on Android, which has an 81% market share of the world’s mobile operating systems.

No wonder Google Play is giving Apple a run for its money, with its own cloud-based storefront for apps, games, movies, TV shows, music, magazines and books. Last month, Germany, the second-largest mobile market in Europe, became the first country in which Google surpassed Apple in revenue for apps, according to market research firm App Annie. That may signify a tipping point: Some analysts estimate Google Play will eclipse Apple’s App Store in sales worldwide as early as this year.

Not bad for an entity that just last week turned 3 years old, less than half the age of Apple’s App Store, and a quarter of the lifespan of iTunes. But to Jamie Rosenberg, the VP of digital content who oversees Google Play, reach and revenue aren’t the only metrics that count.

“As we measure ourselves, we ask, ‘Are we getting more and more out of every Android device that gets activated, and is our performance increasing over time?’ ” he said. “And that has been the case.”

Of course, revenue helps. While Google doesn’t break out Google Play’s haul, various analysts have pegged it in the neighborhood of $4 billion to $5 billion for 2014. Not only is that comparable with YouTube, but last year Credit Suisse analyst Stephen Ju estimated Google Play may be even more valuable than YouTube, because the lower cost to operate Rosenberg’s division translates to higher operating profit and free cash flow.

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Despite Google Play’s scale, Apple’s App Store appears to have the edge in terms of per-capita profitability. Both companies are said to keep about 30% of every app transaction, leaving the rest to developers, who received $10 billion from Apple in the past 12 months, according to the company — $3 billion more than its archrival paid out.

App Annie calculates that Apple brings in 70% more revenue from apps than does Google Play, which may come as a surprise, because Google Play delivers 60% more app downloads than Apple. The cause may be that Google Play serves an audience with generally less disposable income than the one snapping up Apple’s high-priced devices.

But Android has such an enormous global footprint that in totality, its revenue-generating power will end up greater, according to Richard Windsor, an analyst with Radio Free Mobile, who projects that Google Play will match Apple’s App Store revenues by 2018. The reason? “Simply because there will be many more Google Play devices than iOS devices in the longer run,” he said.

David MacQueen, a mobile analyst with Strategy Analytics, is even more bullish, projecting Google Play will catch up before the end of the year. As he explains it, the volume of apps may not seem significant, considering most in either App Store or Google Play are free to download. But operating systems stand to collect from freemium apps — such as free games with bonus levels that require paid access — as well as from fast-rising in-app advertising.

“For Google, the profitability of its app store, per se, doesn’t matter,” MacQueen said. “Having good reach matters, because the advertising revenue is of critical importance.”

More than 90% of Google Play’s revenue in the latter half of 2014 was derived from games alone, according to a joint App Annie/IDC estimate. But the mandate to diversify beyond that is reflected in the formation of Google Play back in 2012, when Google Music and Google eBookstore were combined with the now defunct Android Market.

The importance of entertainment content to Google Play is hitting home at the studios, which are getting the full-court press from Google to devise promotional strategies that set their home-entertainment releases apart from the competition. Last November, for instance, Paramount Pictures joined forces with Google Play to promote “Interstellar” with a customized campaign that called on fans to contribute homemade videos that would be included in a “time capsule” documentary, a riff on the existential theme of Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi saga. That same month, Google Play cinched a deal with Disney Movies Anywhere, allowing content from Disney, Marvel and Pixar to be played on Android devices.

Google Play seems to be tapping a reservoir of good will born of an appreciation for a well-executed market entrance. “I’ve been impressed by the effort Google put toward the rollout, and the marketing and operational push,” said Jim Packer, president of worldwide TV and digital distribution at Lionsgate.

While Google has been accused of playing hardball with content companies on behalf of YouTube, it seems to be taking a more collaborative approach toward the 200 or so premium publishers and studios that supply Google Play. “I think we’ve developed some great partnerships with the content industry, and done some interesting things in the last few years,” Rosenberg said.

Still, all purveyors of electronic sell-through in the U.S., whether Apple or Google, Vudu or Comcast, are adversely affected by the easy availability of subscription VOD offerings, like Netflix. When most consumers want to watch content only once, and there’s a cheaper rental alternative that facilitates that behavior via streaming instead of downloading, it calls into question the entire notion of ownership. But the studios desperately want to keep the ownership model alive, because it’s a much higher-margin business than SVOD.

In fact, according to the Digital Entertainment Group, EST is the fastest-growing portion of the home entertainment business, rising more than 30% year over year to $1.6 billion in 2014. But that’s still a far cry from the $4 billion subscription streaming business, and the $8.5 billion in sales that DVDs and EST have reaped together, albeit a total that has declined more than 5% since 2013.

Google Play isn’t entirely focused on the transactional business, however. On the music side, an All Access package entitles users to tap a library of 30 million songs, ad free, for $9.99 per month. The service recently more than doubled users’ cloud-storage capacity to 50,000 songs.

The importance of entertainment content to Google Play is also seen in a multi-year marketing campaign Google has undertaken. What at first seemed to be simply about searing the multicolored triangular logo into consumers’ brains has evolved into something that puts more emphasis on artists and their work. To convey a sense that virtual transactions can have an emotional element to them, the campaign has highlighted celebrities like Jack Black in an animated online spot riffing on his days growing up in Hermosa Beach, Calif.

Rosenberg said there was a conscious decision to get away from simply touting the functional attributes of Google Play. “In the last year, we’ve seen brand marketing pivot to be very content-forward,” he said. “We had this realization that the content is the hero on our service.”

Packer appreciates Google’s approach to marketing. “A lot of times when platforms do an ad campaign, they blow it out for a couple of months, and then it’s over,” he said. “In this case, Google made sure the campaign was ongoing, continually refreshed and interesting.”

During the Oscars, Google used its massive ad network for a nifty bit of real-time marketing, promoting transaction opportunities to purchase a movie on Google Play immediately after it won in a given category. By analyzing its own search data, Google was able to determine that an Oscar win translated online to 15-minute increments of interest in the winning movie, which drove the ultra-targeted marketing.

Google Play has even managed to figure out not only how to market apps within its platform, but also how to profit from the process of helping users to find them within its massive library. Last month, it announced plans to experiment with sponsored search results; as with Google’s core search functionality, advertisers can pay to link their apps to specific key words.

For Rosenberg, it’s a priority for Google Play to integrate with all the many different businesses in which its parent company is active. Getting Google Play on Google’s own low-cost streaming media player, Chromecast, has paid off nicely for entertainment. “A year and a half ago, we had no living-room story for Google Play, which was a challenge on the movie side,” Rosenberg said. “We’re actually surprised how fast our movies and TV have grown without a seamless way to get into the living room.”

Conspicuously absent from these integration plans so far is YouTube, where obvious cross-promotion has yet to be executed. Though content purchased on either service can be shared, there’s no way for Google to capitalize on YouTube’s ubiquity by allowing someone streaming, say, a Lady Gaga musicvideo to click their way over to buy her album on Google Play.

Maybe Google’s two biggest content plays are bound to team up? For now, all Rosenberg will say is, “There is certainly more we can do there.”

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