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Product Management

Tools the Top 100 iOS Apps Use: A Categorical Breakdown

Guest Blogger  //  November 17, 2015  //  13 min read

Most of us want to get our apps in the top 100 some day. With mobile being a winner-take-all game, the traffic and prestige that come from making it into the top lists in the App Store may be just what your app needs to level up.

But breaking into the top 100 can be a Herculean task.

Recently, Ryan Olson compiled a list of the libraries used in the top 100 iOS apps. Perusing the list, one might recognize a few names here and there. But unless you spend time intimately working with each of these tools, it’s difficult to get a sense of what’s actually going on.

We decided to dig deeper to better understand the tools the top 100 free iOS apps are using. In this post, we comb through the list to figure out how many of the top 100 free iOS apps integrate with each tool, and what category the bulk of the tools fall into to better understand what mobile teams are prioritizing.

*Editor’s note: For this post, we decided not to include libraries only related to mobile games as those are not as applicable for a broad app marketing audience.

There are a few key categories of libraries that were widely adopted by mobile teams. This in particular included quality assurance, mobile user acquisition, social, and user experience focused tools. Let’s start at the top.

Quality Assurance (75 Instances)

By now, most teams know that ensuring your app doesn’t crash should be a top priority. Users have a low tolerance for buggy apps, with only 16% willing to try a failing app more than twice. The data pulled seems to reflect this, as well. Out of 100 apps, there are 75 instances of crash analytics and reporting tools noted by Olson. These tools ensure that teams are able to see when an app is crashing for users, but also dig into why and fix it as quickly as humanly possible.

  • Crashlytics (37/100) Lightweight app crash reporting and analytics.
  • HockeyApp (14/100) Live crash reports, user feedback, test coverage analysis, and app tester recruitment.
  • Google Breakpad (14/100) This crash handler generates minidumps when your mobile app crashes, which can be sent back to you to help figure out what caused the crash.
  • PLCrashReporter (10/100) Provides an in-process crash reporting framework (powers most of the crash reporting services available for iOS, including HockeyApp, Flurry, and Crittercism.)

Identification (38 Instances)

Identification was one of the most surprising tidbits found in this data. Even though UDID and UUID have been deprecated for a few years now, there were still many instances found in the top apps. For those not familiar, identifiers like UDID (Unique Device Identification) were very popular among apps because they allowed teams to track users without logins, as well as analyze crash reports, isolate bugs, and other app conveniences.

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 2.33.19 PM

Identifiers such as UDID act like social security numbers, used for tracking purposes.

Apple started to deprecate identifiers due to privacy concerns and some concerns voiced in the U.S. Congress. They started rejecting apps that tracked UDIDs and even threatened to kick them out of the App Store.

  • OpenUDID (17/100)A now deprecated identification method, UDID is surprisingly popular among many top apps today. UDID or Unique Device Identifier has been deemed an ethical and privacy risk for users, yet we can see that 17 of the 100 top apps are still using it. Curious.
  • BPXLUUIDHandler (11/100) A universally unique identifier or UUID allows teams to track a user between app usage sessions, assigning a unique identifier while the user has an app installed. This means that app makers are able to track a user that has not logged in across multiple app sessions. However, if the app is uninstalled the ID will change.
  • SecureUDID (10/100) A Crashlytics version of UDID.

Monetization and Acquisition, a.k.a. Ads (170 Instances)

In mobile marketing, the benefits can be twofold: user acquisition and monetization.

Mobile growth is oftentimes more difficult than adoption on web. As the App Store has an iron grip on the most effective distribution channel, supplementary tactics can often be quite effective.

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 2.38.38 PM

That’s where mobile marketing tools come in, and they’re clearly prevalent. They help companies not only publicize their apps, but they also often able to attribute which channels were most effective.

The second benefit of using mobile marketing is the monetization aspect. Through using in-app advertisements, teams have an alternative channel for driving revenue other than charging for their apps (which often leads to fewer downloads) or up selling within an app.

The number of advertising libraries found across the top apps was quite surprising, especially given the recent backlash and increased adoption of ad blocking tools. However, marketing still seems to be very effective in helping acquire users and monetize their app.

  • Google-Mobile-Ads-SDK (38/100) Helps growing publishers sell, schedule, deliver, and measure their digital mobile ad inventory.
  • GoogleConversionTracking (29/100) See how your ads lead to conversion activity, like purchases and downloads.
  • MoPub (25/100) A Twitter product that helps mobile publishers manage their ad inventory.
  • Adjust (16/100) BI platform with a focus on attribution.
  • Applovin (13/100) Mobile marketing automation and analytics.
  • InMobiSDK (9/100) A lightweight SDK for mobile ad monetization.
  • MobileAppTracker (9/100) An advanced, full-service mobile marketing platform.
  • Kochava (7/100) A robust mobile analytics platform.
  • AppNexus (7/100) Cloud-based software platform that enables and optimizes programmatic online advertising.
  • Supersonic Ads (6/100) A mobile advertising platform.
  • SponsorPay SDK (6/100) Fyber’s SDK that accesses the Apple Advertising Identifier (IDFA).
  • Appsflyer (5/100) A mobile marketing analytics and attribution platform.

Video Ads (33 Instances)

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 2.44.53 PM

Another monetization strategy is to use full screen video ads, which we found most commonly on mobile games. These can be highly engaging for users and provide a more immersive ad experience.

  • AdColony (22/100) An ad monetization tool that delivers full screen video ads of high quality to mobile users.
  • Vungle (11/100) Another SDK that does personalized mobile video ads.

App Reviews (22 Instances)

Due to the fact that user ratings are a major factor when it comes to App Store Optimization, garnering great user reviews is more top of mind for many product teams. As a result, a significant proportion of the top 100 apps are using tools that help remind users to rate their apps.

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 2.48.07 PM

  • Appirater (12/100) Appirater is a drop in SDK that helps remind users to review their apps. It’s created under MIT’s open source license, so you’re able to contribute and modify as you please.
  • iRate (9/100) A handy class that prompts users of your iPhone or Mac App Store app to rate your application after using it for a while. Similar to Appirater, but with a simpler, cleaner interface and automatic support for iOS fast application switching.
  • Apptentive (1/100) Unlike the other two SDKs mentioned above, Apptentive takes feedback further. It uses feedback not only boost rank in the app stores, but also to ensure that companies get regular feedback from customers and to drive their app improvements.

User Experience (84 Instances)

Given the sheer number of classes in this category, it’s clear that the user experience is important to many mobile teams. The user experience is even more vital on mobile than on web. Mobile teams today are focusing on creating an optimal experience on mobile, making the most of limited screen real estate and controls.

Both MBProgressHUD and SVProgressHUD help signal to users that work is being done in the background and that they simply need to hang tight. This feedback helps reassure users “that the system has understood their input and that progress is being made.” As a result, apps using these tools are likely to have fewer users abandoning their apps due to frustration.

  • MBProgressHUD (16/100) An iOS drop-in class that displays a translucent HUD with an indicator and/or labels while work is being done in a background thread.
    Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 2.58.43 PM
  • SVProgressHUD (5/100) A lightweight progress HUD for iOS apps.
  • 1PasswordExtension (9/100) Rather than forcing users to go through the arduous process of typing in their username and passwords on the error prone iPhone keyboards, they’re able to do so with just a few clicks using 1Password. Of course, that’s only if you already use 1Password. This super handy extension that we’ve talked about before is one of the newest methods teams are using to streamline the mobile login experience.
    Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 3.00.40 PM

Other UX and UI changes were generally performance based or adding some specific tweaks to the app such as dynamic animations, text field optimization, and even the shimmering effect that Apple uses on its lockscreen.

  • Pop (12/100) Facebook’s animation library engine that helps create dynamic animations.
  • HPGrowingTextView (7/100) An UITextView which grows/shrinks with the text and starts scrolling when the content reaches a certain number of lines.
  • TPKeyboardAvoiding (6/100) A solution for moving text fields out of the way of the keyboard.
  • Photoscroller (6/100) An Apple tool. Create a rich user experience for displaying and paginating photos that can be individually panned and zoomed.
  • Shimmer (5/100) Adds the shimmer effect found on the lock screen. From Facebook.
  • AsyncDisplayKit (5/100) Keeps complex user interfaces smooth and responsive.
  • SVPullToRefresh (5/100) Pull-to-refresh and infinite scrolling.
  • PSPDFTextView (4/100) Fixes a minor scrolling error when typing in iOS.
  • FXBlurView (4/100) Replicates the iOS7 real-time background blur effect.

Enhanced Functionality (42 Instances)

While most apps build out most their own features, there are some instances where other tools are more appropriate for the job. And by other tools, I mainly mean Google features. Top apps strive to provide the best user experience possible to engage and retain their users, so oftentimes that means leveraging pre-existing best in class tools such as Google Maps, Youtube, or SpeechKit to make sure everything works as smoothly as possible.

  • OpenInChrome (15/100) This SDK helps check if chrome is installed, pass the URL, and open a new tab in chrome.
  • Google Cast SDK (8/100) Lets you extend your iOS app to control a TV or sound system.
  • SpeechKit (6/100) Voice recognition and text to speech by Dragon.
  • Youtube-ios-player-helper (5/100) Add YouTube Video Playback in an app.
  • Google Maps (4/100) Adds Google Maps to your app.

An interesting trend to note is the addition of GIF engines to this list. GIFs and short videos are becoming a much more important medium for users to share, with apps like DSCO, Vine, or Giphy greatly increasing in popularity in the last few years. As more rich mediums for sharing become easier to integrate, we’re guessing this is likely to become much more prevalent.

Payments (9 Instances)

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 3.30.45 PM

As mobile payments become more and more viable, companies are adopting 3rd party mobile payment systems to quickly improve functionality. Uber and many others take advantage of the functionality of Card.io, which allows you to simply take a picture of your credit card in order to have your personal data uploaded.

  • Card.io (5/100) Allows you to take a picture of your credit card, and it auto imports the device. Impressive.
  • Braintree (4/100) Accepts a wide variety of payment systems including Paypal Bitcoin, Venmo, Apple Pay and Android pay with a single integration.

While payment SDKs such as the ones mentioned may not be applicable to every app, we definitely expect to see them pop up more and more often as the field matures.

Analytics (89 Instances)

Analytics are at the heart of nearly every top app, so we’re not surprised that there are 96 instances of popular tools found in the top 100. “You can only control that which you observe,” right?

Unless we’re able to see exactly how users are behaving in our app, we won’t be able to comprehend and start to shape that behavior. The most popular analytics platform in the top 100 appears to be Flurry, which was acquired by Yahoo! last year.

  • Flurry (31/100) App performance and event analysis.
  • Google Analytics (20/100) Can track different apps in different properties, different versions, and different platforms.
  • ComScore (18/100) Audience and advertising analytics.
  • Localytics (7/100) Closed-loop app analytics.
  • Mixpanel (7/100) Instead of tracking page views, it tracks the actions people take in your mobile app.
  • Parse (4/100) Real-time analytics on API requests based on REST verbs, device type, and class.

One newer trend in the mobile field is using A/B testing to help teams define the product roadmap. Mobile A/B testing helps teams quickly figure out how any changes (new features, UI changes, etc.) to their app will affect user behavior. This allows them to draw a direct cause and effect relationship between any changes they make to their app and increasing KPIs, as well as validate changes before deploying to their entire user base.

  • Apptimize (2/100) Helps app publishers improve apps in real-time through A/B testing and without code.

Social (101 Instances)

The leader was unsurprisingly the Facebook SDK. Due to the market penetration they’ve already achieved, it isn’t surprising that almost everyone wants to tap into Facebook as a channel for data or for something as simple as frictionless logins. Utilizing the SDKs of Twitter, Facebook, or Google, mobile teams can decrease friction in their app by making the login process less frustrating and preventing unnecessary drop offs.

While Facebook is by far the most popular, even WeChat and Weibo are starting to see traction among top apps. As the platform wars start to heat up, we’re likely to see even more apps integrating with social networks, allowing them to track user IDs through the platform or even just utilize them as a discovery channels.

  • Facebook iOS SDK (67/100) The Facebook SDK includes Facebook’s social login, sharing capabilities, access to the open graph, and much more.
  • Google Plus (18/100) Similar to Facebook’s SDK, the Google+ SDK also allows users the benefits of connecting with the giant’s social network including Google logins, as well as social graph info and social sharing.
  • Twitter (6/100) Allows users to log in with Twitter, access to the Twitter API, compose new tweets, or compact tweet views.
  • WeChat (6/100) Share content via WeChat message or WeChat Moments.
  • Weibo (4/100) The Weibo SDK helps connect and expand functionality regarding the Weibo platform.

Security (9 Instances)

With mobile phones being such intimate devices, mobile security and privacy are more of a concern than ever before, and for good reason. According to a study by FireEye, the number of iOS vulnerabilities has increased by 262% from 2011. As we continue to migrate our lives and purchases to mobile, having tools such as TrustDefender will help combat fraudulent transactions provide everyone with a bit more peace of mind.

  • TrustDefender Mobile (9/100) Helps teams identify fraudulent transactions originating from mobile apps by focusing on identity verification.

Wrap Up

Looking at the tools that the top 100 mobile apps are using, we’re able to get a deeper understanding as to what the most successful apps have been focusing on in order to reach the top spots. We saw that mobile advertising is a huge business, and one of the common tools used for both user acquisition, as well as in-app monetization.

The user experience is also heavily emphasized in mobile development. Not only are teams using 3rd party integrations such as Open in Chrome, Google Maps, or Dragon’s Speechkit, but they’re also integrating libraries that incrementally tweak and improve the UI to make sure everything is as smooth as humanly possible. If we want to retain our mobile users, we have to make sure we’re not making any common mistakes that hurt the user experience.

Mobile apps are fundamentally different from web; not only in user acquisition, but also the way we use mobile, and in particular the way we release on mobile. With a slew of challenges facing app publishers, marketers, and product managers, it’s important to understand the key tenants that are specific to ranking higher in the app stores.

kendrickAuthor bio: Kendrick Wang is on a mission to show the world that there’s a better way to develop on mobile. He works in marketing at Apptimize and helps product teams build better, data-driven apps that engage and delight their users.

Follow him at @kendrickwang or on the Apptimize blog.

About Guest Blogger

This article was written by one of our awesome guest bloggers. We're lucky to have these community members to share their knowledge with our mobile community.
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