App downloads to hit 102 billion in 2013, spurred by an avalanche of freebies

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch, but there is such thing as a free app. In fact, there's a veritable avalanche of them: On Thursday, research firm Gartner released a report predicting a whopping 102 billion—yes, with a "b"—apps will be downloaded in 2013, and an even more whopping 91 percent of those will be of the no-cost variety.

That's a big leap over the 64 billion apps downloaded in 2012, but only a slight increase in freebie usage. So how will Apple, Android, and developers rake in the cash with so many mobile mavens opting for free apps? In-app purchases. Gartner expects 17 percent of all app store revenue to come from in-app purchases in 2013, and that figure is expected to increase to 48 percent by 2017.

In-app purchases have taken the world by storm as developers increasingly turn to the free-to-play model, even infiltrating the world of video game consoles and PC games.

The best and worst of both worlds

The shift is a mixed blessing, though. While it's wonderful that anyone can pick up and start using many popular apps—Gartner says 60 percent of iOS apps and 80 percent of Android apps are of the gratis variety—the push to monetize has led some cash-hungry developers to overwhelm their apps with ads and aggressive in-app purchasing tactics that nickel and dime users at the expense of the user experience.

Here's hoping those trends fade away over time. Gartner says in-app ads haven't been very effective and expect their usage to decline over time, and the firm also says in-app purchases perform best in high-quality apps. In fact, in-app purchases are expected to slowly infiltrate even premium apps as time goes on.

"We see that users are not put off by the fact that they have already paid for an app, and are willing to spend more if they are happy with the experience," Brian Blau, research director at Gartner, said in the firm's press release. "As a result, we believe that IAP is a promising and sustainable monetization method because it encourages performance-based purchasing; that is, users only pay when they are happy with the experience, and developers have to work hard to earn the revenue through good design and performance."

Do you hate the idea of being asked to buy every interesting feature in your favorite apps? There's a way to largely sidestep the in-app purchasing trend: Pay money for the apps you like. Remember, you get what you pay for, and a $5 app isn't expensive in the grand scheme of things. TechHive's app hub can help point you towards software that's worth your hard-earned dollars.

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