Mobile users are increasingly downloading free apps, a new study from research firm Gartner has found.
The company announced today that 45.6 billion apps will be downloaded worldwide in 2012. Out of that, a whopping 89 percent, or 40.6 billion, will be free apps. The remaining 5 billion will be downloaded after users purchase them.
Last year, free apps accounted for 88.4 percent of all downloads. Last year's total download tally hit only 25 billion.
When users actually download paid apps, they're largely unwilling to pay a significant sum. In fact, Gartner research director Sandy Shen said today that "90 percent of the paid-for downloads cost less than $3 each."
Gartner's study seems to indicate what industry observers have been saying all along -- that consumers, when given the chance to either buy a full-fledged app or download a free program and then purchase add-ons as necessary, will typically choose the latter course.
Earlier this year, ABI Research predicted that mobile application revenue could reach $46 billion by 2016. A major component of that will be in-app purchases. That study followed another from IHS iSuppli back in January, which predicted that revenue from in-app purchases could soar to $5.6 billion by 2015.
"In 2012, it will become increasingly difficult for app stores and developers to justify charging an upfront fee for their products when faced with competition from a plethora of free content," IHS analyst Jack Kent said at the time. "Instead, the apps industry must fully embrace the freemium model and monetize content through in-app purchases."
Gartner agrees with that sentiment. The company said that in-app purchases will account for 41 percent of all app store revenue by 2016. What's more, 30 percent of all apps downloaded in 2016 will feature in-app purchasing.
That's not an immaterial number: according to Gartner, 310 billion apps will be downloaded in 2016. Out of that, 93 percent will be free.