The Lite that weighs heavily
Analytics firm App Annie’s research suggests that in 2016, global app downloads increased by 15% over 2015, time spent on apps went up by 25%, and the revenue paid to developers, by 40%. Of this, 13 billion app downloads were from the Apple App Store and 90 billion from the Google Play Store.
However, many affordable Android phones, which don’t have the most powerful processor or a lot of RAM, may not be able to run all the apps smoothly. Developers do understand the challenges that the hardware in Android phones can pose, and there is greater focus on trimming the app footprint.
The way their solution, Lite apps, works is simple—some of the features and functionality available in the standard app are stripped away. So the app takes up less space on the phone, with fewer processes running in the background and less data, therefore, being consumed.
Users are warming up to the idea. The Facebook Lite app, for instance, crossed the 200 million user milestone in February. When wallet app-maker MobiKwik released a Lite version in November during the height of the demonetization drive, the app registered as many as two million downloads in the first 48 hours.
But do these Lite apps deliver what they promise? The answer, unfortunately, isn’t a categorical yes.
The installation of Lite apps is supposed to take up very little space. The Microsoft Skype Lite app, which is now rolling out, is just 13 MB to download. Does that mean it’ll take up just 13 MB on your Android phone? On a variety of phones that we tested this with, the Skype Lite installation size was around 50 MB—and while technically this is the “fastest and smallest app to date”, as Microsoft claims, it is not significantly different from the full-fledged Skype app, which takes up around 96 MB of space on Android phones. On a phone with 8 GB or 16 GB internal storage space, that difference isn’t enough to justify the switch to the stripped down Lite app. In contrast, the Facebook Lite app exhibits a significant difference. The standard Facebook app takes up 181 MB space to install on a Xiaomi Redmi Note 3, for instance, while the Facebook Lite app takes up just 9.01MB space.
App developers also claim that Lite apps need fewer resources to run, which will improve their performance on less powerful phones—these generally have 1 GB or 2 GB RAM. Microsoft’s official pitch for Skype Lite is that it is, well, “lightweight, battery-friendly and runs smoothly on new and old Android mobile devices”. Again, our experience showed otherwise. On the same Redmi Note 3, we compared the memory usage of the standard Skype app and the Skype Lite app—the standard version uses 123 MB when active, while the stripped-down version actually uses 126 MB, which is more. In contrast, Facebook’s standard app consumes 235 MB RAM while the Lite app, true to its promise of being nimble and less resource intensive, takes up only 114 MB RAM.
Unfortunately, that’s not all. The way these apps are designed, they continue to run in the background, even after you may have closed them, so that they can constantly poll for new data—and you can see the latest updates when you open the app. We noticed that the full-fledged Facebook app consumes 78 MB of RAM, while Facebook Lite consumes just 14 MB while running in the background. In contrast, the full-fledged Skype app uses up 117 MB RAM even when not active, while the Skype Lite app actually still takes up around 120 MB.
It is indeed true that Lite apps, be it Facebook, Skype or others, tend to be better on sluggish networks. And data saving is useful, particularly if you don’t have a subscription plan that bundles a lot of 3G/4G data. However, there is still some way to go before Lite apps can be perfectly in sync with the idea of optimized usage experience on affordable Android phones. And Skype Lite certainly needs some work.