Songs, Books and Apps: What do the three media types tell us about the future of consumption?

The 200+ million iOS devices have caused 14 billion apps to be downloaded in less than three years. The iTunes music store caused 15 billion songs to be downloaded over a 7 year period.

The two media download totals are shown in the following chart:

About 9 months ago I predicted that Apps would overtake song downloads. I was off on the timing by a few months. The app download rate slowed down in the last few months. However, the crossover point is imminent. The song download rate is running at about 12 million per day while the app download rate is at about 30 million per day (the iBook download rate is still growing but is only at half a million per day). The following chart shows the three media types and their download rates over time.

Although it took about 35 months for Apps to reach 14 billion downloads, the equivalent time for the Songs was about 80 months. You can see the different “ramp rates” (cumulative totals indexed to the same starting date) for the three media on the following chart.

Given the large numbers involved, a better view might be had looking at a log scale chart of the same data:

What I would point out is the emerging pattern that the three media ramps are separated by about an order of magnitude. In other words songs are 10x more downloaded than books (at a given point in the life of the media store) while apps are 10x more downloaded than songs. You would see this pattern emerge within the log chart as the three lines run parallel and equidistant.

Obviously, apps are going to be more popular than songs since many are free. And obviously songs are going to be more popular than books because many are much cheaper.

But painting this picture with price is only a rough sketch. The ways that these media are consumed (and consumable) fills in the details. The amount of energy needed to enjoy each varies greatly. The “digestibility” of the material is different. In a way, these are the same factors which are drawing consumption toward tweeting, blogging and browsing and away from paper based media.

The new technologies are allowing consumption to conform more closely to people’s lives. They are like clothes that fit a bit better and are more comfortable. They may not look as good as formal attire, but in the end casual always wins.

  • There are a lot of book or magazine apps. It would be interesting to see what percentage of the apps are of that type.
    I guess it will double the books downloads.

  • andreionut makes a good point. The book / app distinction is being blurred a bit. Then you have the huge sale of ring tones to smart phone owners. I assume these sales are included in neither app nor music downloads. The article contains interesting observations about the sheer volume of app sales and the trend in this arena. But from the perspective of the artist or app designer, I'm not sure there is much they can do about these trends. One is either a writer, musician, or app designer. Can't exactly chuck the music career to design apps.

  • I'd like to point out that this is only looking at sales through itunes. I buy a lot of books through amazon barely any through ibooks. And I find myself more and more buying songs off amazon since you can usually get a better deal. While all my apps are purchased through the appstore since there is no other choice.

    I'd suspect that the books and song download numbers are higher than indicated here. I'd like to see a chart of all apps songs and books bought on all platforms. I think that would give us a more accurate description

  • jehrler

    What would be interesting is these graphs by revenue rather than downloads. But I'm pretty sure that data isn't available outside Apple

    • asymco

      I'll be publishing estimates of the financials of the App store soon.

  • Horace, while I normally enjoy very much your insight into market/technology trends, this time I don't agree with your analysis.
    IMO, you are comparing non-comparable categories.
    On the one hand, the time and effort needed to write (by the author) and to read (by the customer) an "average" book is much longer than that needed to compose or listen to a single song. In this regard, a more apt comparison would be between iBook sales and music "album" sales (i.e., multiple song sales). If one considers that an "average", traditional music album consisted of about 8-10 songs, comparable music and book units have comparable sales.
    On the other hand, apps are enormously heterogeneous; they are useful for a plethora of functions ("there's an app for that"!), while songs are sold just to be listened to and books are (largely) sold just to be read (apart for technical textbooks, reference texts and similar exceptions).
    Again, if one considers homogeneous, single-purpose categories of apps (e.g., navigation apps, or drawing apps, or radio-streaming apps), I think that the units sold would be much more similar to those of iBooks or music "album" units. In a sense, you could consider music and books just as another two app categories; then, you could compare the units sold in each category.
    If you do this comparison, I am confident that the app category which sells WAY more than any other is the "games" one, followed by the others at a long distance (remember, the unit for music is a 10-song one). Now, THIS says something about our consumption habits…
    Thanks again for the good work!


  • Lincoln

    I'm still shocked every time I read Horace writing that he was wrong (or "off"). It's just so unusual to see a writer online do it. It gives his other numbers more credibility. Perhaps Asymco has worked out this "true facts" thing.

    Keep it up.

  • Luis Masanti

    Although I appreciate a lot Horace's analysis, I also join the several comments on deeper analysis.
    As a matter of facts, we also need to consider that by June 2008 (App Store arrival) we "already" owned a lot of books and music tracks (usually copied to the computer)… but no one "app."

    • asymco

      Many comments in this and other posts on the topic of media types point out data accuracy errors. But the likely error is swamped by orders of magnitude differences.

  • davel

    What is an App? Is it books/magazines/paid/free applications? Does it include the updates?

    A song is a song. It always has a cost. Also the way many games work is you get points for downloading some other thing. Which you may download and toss.

    With the above I do not think it is a fair comparison to graph each altho it is notable that the app downloads have happened this much this fast.

    • kevin

      Apple has said over and over again that their app download numbers do not include updates. Why is this still a question?

      Songs and books are also "sold" for free, both on iTunes/iBooks and at Amazon, though of course not in as high percentages as for apps.

      The comparison is generally fair — it depends on what conclusions are being drawn by the comparison. (That said, I think if Amazon ebook sales were included in the comparison, the book category would be much higher.)

  • Ziad Fazel

    Nice use of your database, Horace. It gives you a moat that most other analysts cannot easily replicate.

    I see it as a broader comparison, rather than one of your deeper articles.

    You might want to start tracking magazine or newspaper subscriptions – new activations and total volume if both available – to add to your database for similar comparisons later.

  • Eric D.

    Apple's new symbol should become the divining rod. How do these guys just open up one new revenue stream after another? Leave it to Apple to make *publishing* profitable again! Not to mention indie software development, a notoriously hardscrabble field.

    Horace, do you anticipate being able to trick out the numbers on Apple accessories? Would love to see the net earnings curve on iPad covers, for instance…

    • asymco

      Accessories are accounted for under corresponding device sales. This includes licensing fees for "made for iPod/iPad/iPhone" third party products, which as far as I recall are 10% of sales. So, no, it's not possible to tease out that as a separate business. In the end accessories just make the i* franchise that much more valuable.

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  • Hdufera

    Amazon started the online retail business by shipping books to customers and now sells almost everything on the planet. With online retail penetration of only 6% of the overall retail market, should Apple start revolutionizing the online retail market and start selling physical non-Apple products?

    • Hdufera

      Apple already sells its products online via the Apple store. In addition, as mentioned above it sells digital music, Apps, books and magazines. Apple told us yesterday at the WWDC that it has 225 million customers with their credit card information. With the online retail market projected to grow to $250B by 2014, shouldn't Apple seriously consider innovating the online retail business? I believe this would significantly counter what Amazon is doing to compete with Apple in the digital content and tablet space.

      • Joe_Winfield_IL

        The issue is that online shopping for non-Apple goods is typically all about finding the balance of lowest price vs. trustworthy store. Maybe I'm not creative enough to see it, but I can't imagine how Apple can get any real margin out of the general retail business. Other than prices, I don't know what would compel shoppers to choose Apple's store above those of the established incumbents. And we all know that Apple's goal is not to sell the exact same product for a lower price, instead they seek to sell a different enough product that price comparisons are irrelevant.

  • I'm not surprised the books are so low. Here in New Zealand we only have access to the classics and Winnie the Pooh. All those titles that we see on the Apple ads / US store are not available here. I guess that might be the case in a lot of other countries.

  • Ted Kluaf

    Many commenters seem to be focused on the variations in cost, method of consumption, alternative sources of media consumption, free, etc… Suggesting the data or thoughts by Horace are inaccurate or of poor quality. I'm hung up on: why isn't video (as reported by Apple) present in the media types?

    Yes, there is less data (it's been de-emphasized with the introduction of new storefronts but trotted out when discussing AppleTV or when convenient) and it is muddied by different forms of consumption at different price points (tv shows, season passes, movie purchases, movie rentals, etc). But video is still very much a media type Apple is trying to excel at selling, yet the market has maybe been more challenging than the book market under Amazon's shadow. Whatever the quality of that data, it is important.

  • vroddrew

    I suspect that the relatively low number of book sales has more to do with the nature of how we consume reading material vs. music and apps.

    Simply put, all but the shortest books involve a considerable amount of time (ranging from an hour to several days) to get through. A song? A few minutes. An App? A more difficult question, but most people can start "using" the App as soon as it downloads.

    Music and apps are about "immediate gratification" – books aren't. And I think that this – more than complaints about kerning, or the relatively high price of e-books, or even the limited selection – explains the lower trajectory for books.

    With that said, I don't think we've seen the last chapter (sorry, pun) written in the story of selling electronic books. Some marketer – maybe at Apple, maybe elsewhere – is going to put together a combination of pricing and convenience and product that gains some traction. But I don't think its happened yet. Regardless of what amazon tells you – most of their e-book sales are replacements for physical purchases.

    • TheOtherGeoff


      although I would say music and apps are less about immediate gratification, but more like books have a much longer gestation. I'm immediately gratified when I 'get' a book, but it takes much longer to clear the decks for the 'next' book. Songs are background stuff. Apps literally are 'there's an app for that' Books, by virtue of their content heft and the 'value' publishers are putting on them (consider that 3 hours [albums] of music is $30+… getting a 300 page [hardbound] book for $9-15 online, you've got more than 3 hours of 'entertainment' there, before you have bandwidth for the next book.

      And I've got books (I hate you Neal Stephenson and your 'Baroque Cycle'!) that take months to read.

  • Unlike music and apps, iBooks faces a formidable incumbent in Kindle (the e-bookstore, not the device alone). Furthermore, e-books as a market is still finding its legs (but rapidly). On the other hand, there is no question people buy songs more often than books. Are there Kindle data (again, the store, not the device) publicly available for comparison against iBooks?

    • kevin

      Amazon has never given specific ebook sales numbers. It has said that ebooks now outsell its hardcover and paperback books at the Amazon Store. So if someone knows what share Amazon had of the overall non-ebook market, and the size of that market, then an estimate can be made. Alternatively, if someone has published current estimates of the ebook market, and Amazon's share of that, then an estimate can also be made. Here's a link with outdated pre-ebook explosion numbers:

  • "Pretty much EVERY book reader is angry at the lousy quality of what is being sold at all the major eBook stores."

    Get over it.

    I write about music sometimes for a living and read tons of Amazon's crappy books on my iPhone and iPad. I don't care how it looks. Words are words. As long as they're legible, you're not losing any information. But music needs to be of a certain fidelity to convey what the producer and musicians at least kind of had in mind. Apple's AACs on iTunes are perfectly fine for this.

    There's no fidelity argument in your post. You're just being a snobbish jerk off who thinks books are more high minded than music. Get over yourself.

    • Snobbery is always someone else's flaw, isn't it? Most consumers of previous decades didn't care about the fidelity of their music until they were shown how much better it could sound on better equipment.

  • Simen S.

    I think iBooks would be substantially more popular if they could be had outside the US. In most territories Kindle is your only option.

  • Horace

    i think it would be even more interesting to relate the growth of those digital items to the growth of sold devices. I would be curious to know for example if the growth of songs is still driven by growth of devices sold or simply by consumption. that would be a perfect complement to your last graph (growth after x months launched)


  • Titanic

    1. Many apps themselves are books as well.
    2. Books can be purchased from other apps: Stanza, Kobo, etc, even Kindle
    3. The quality/usefulness of an app can be judged within 30 seconds, but can't do the same thing for books.
    4. JB is much more troublesome than using torrent. So people still buy apps.
    5. Apps can be purchased on iTunes only, not the same for music.
    6. Many people still prefer to read paper books rather than ebooks.

    • TheOtherGeoff

      7. apps have a very low barrier to entry… APU is measured in pennies.
      Horace… do you have 'revenue' per period?

      2 and 5 can be combined.

      8. Lots of book content is being webified, rather than 'ebookified'
      (most universities bulk scan course materials and load PDFs on the web, same for journals).

      9. Reading for-sale e-books on PCs was not popular prior to mobile devices… mobile book readers defined the market late in the PC cycle, therefore limiting incubation of the commercial ebook. (this is not to say e-books weren't on computers… my first NeXT came with the complete works of Shakespeare, albeit free [as part of a $7K purchase). Note commercial apps sales have been on computers for as long as there have been computers for sale, music and video DVDs for 20 years.

      10. from my librarian wife: Books are for people trying to escape electronic media;-) ebooks are an oxymoron.

  • George Slusher

    Apparently, millions of people disagree with you, as they are buying Kindle books INSTEAD of paper books. (According to Amazon, they sell more Kindle books now than paper books.) You seem to be making the common error of projecting your own experience, desires, opinions, etc, onto "the public." You've spoken eloquently for yourself; don't try to speak for other people.

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