How Android Became the King of Apps in Southeast Asia – And Why They Bought 100 Million Indian Phones

LINE, for instance, offers its users a newsfeed, and options for shopping and food ordering. Zalo, meanwhile, offers integration with shopping options and lets the user ‘search’ people around them. These function as “little WeChats” in Southeast Asia—WeChat is the super app owned by China internet behemoth Tencent—that serve multiple functions like chatting, entertainment, and shopping all in one ap. This is a transformation Facebook is angling for but hasn’t yet fully achieved.

The dark horse

The dark horse

Since Chinese short-video app TikTok first entered Southeast Asia in late 2017, it has consistently been among the most downloaded apps. But after downloading, do people forget it’s on their phones?

TikTok doesn’t even make it into the top 20 by MAU. That’s why you don’t see an MAU line in the chart above.

That’s understandable, said Kabeer Chaudhary, managing partner at marketing firm M&C Saatchi Performance, Asia-Pacific. “Facebook’s family of apps has been around for eight to 10 years, or more. TikTok is a new entrant.”

He wouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese app shows up in the top MAU chart this year as he’s “already seen a lot of traction for TikTok in markets like India”.

TikTok launched in India roughly around the same time as in Southeast Asia and quickly accrued active users there, almost 200 million a month. Why wasn’t there a time lag there? TikTok’s growth in India comes mostly from tier-2 and -3 cities. So, perhaps TikTok simply hasn’t found the right way to crack that user profile in Southeast Asia yet.

TikTok aside, there is one Chinese app that is quite actively used in this region. SHAREit.

The 10th most popular app by MAU by the end of 2019, SHAREit doesn’t come from the usual suspects—China’s social media giants ByteDance, Tencent or YY. It started out as a utility app made by Chinese tech company Lenovo, but then decoupled into a standalone app. Its primary function is to share apps and files without using precious data bandwidth.

In Southeast Asia, first-time smartphone users sometimes rely on the help of another person—shopkeepers, friends, family—to install some basic apps on their new phones. This is where SHAREit comes in handy. Once SHAREit is installed on both phones, you can transfer apps and files from one to the other offline. (You can read how this works in India in our story from 2018. SHAREit had already made it to 200 million active users in India at the time.)

More offline transfers, less data usage. There’s something TikTok can’t offer.

Shopee’s sprint

With Southeast Asia’s e-commerce market tipped to grow almost 4X to US$153 billion by 2025 (from US$39 billion in 2019), online marketplaces are having a moment in the sun. Lazada and Shopee, which both operate across the region, have staked their claims to the title of being the No. 1 player in the region.

Rich Data Points Replicates Southeast Asia’s App Addiction Cycle

To put it simply, the region’s love for apps is a data goldmine in understanding what makes it tick. With custom data compiled by mobile applications analytics firm App Annie, We were able to dive into this goldmine. But a single source data set is no fun, so we’ve also looked at App Annie’s 2020 State of Mobile report and We Are Social’s Digital 2020 reports.

The top apps by downloads and monthly active users (MAU) per quarter in the region’s six biggest markets—Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam—from 2017 to 2019 tell quite the story. Some major patterns in Southeast Asia’s app user habits—and obsessions—also emerge.

Facebook, we’re looking at you. But then again, so are all of Southeast Asia’s app users.

Facebook’s Fantastic Four

Facebook’s Fantastic Four

Facebook’s apps are highly popular in Southeast Asia, which isn’t a surprise. But the American social media giant holds the region in its grip so tightly that it’s almost a monopoly.

The top four ranking apps by MAU in the region are all Facebook’s crown jewels. There’s Facebook’s main app, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp—and they’ve shown little fluctuation in the last three years.

LINE—the messaging app created by the Japan-based subsidiary of South Korean internet company Naver—is the only app to have lost to Team Facebook in this timeframe. In fact, members of this team are competing amongst themselves.

Like the rest of the world, Southeast Asia is a little bit divided on whether it prefers WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger to serve its need for constant chit-chat. WhatsApp has an edge over Messenger in Indonesia, but Messenger is preferred in Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Big deal, it’s all in the family anyway.

It’s Southeast Asia’s second layer of popular messaging and social apps that tell their individual stories. Pretty high up are LINE, Zalo and Viber, but these are actually quite country-specific.

Zalo, for instance, is only popular in its home country Vietnam, but that’s enough to bump it into the regional top 20. It’s been on a steady 13th rank since 2019. According to We Are Social’s report on Vietnam, 74% of Vietnamese between the ages of 16 to 64 say they use Zalo.

SEA’s apps diet

LINE is still immensely popular in Thailand. So much so that it surpasses Facebook with 44 million active users over Facebook’s estimated 27.4 million. This makes Thailand one of the few countries in the world where Facebook is not in the top spot. Line is also popular in Indonesia with a self-claimed 90 million users per month in 2018, although less so than Facebook’s apps.

Viber, a European messaging app, is common in the Philippines, and to some degree, in Vietnam. The company doesn’t disclose country-wise user bases.

While Facebook has the most access to users across the region, Southeast Asians like to keep alternative messaging apps on the side. And in some cases, like LINE and Zalo, these apps have morphed into much more than messaging.