“Lite” apps have been around for years, but they took off with Android Go – an initiative to make cheaper low-end phones for people in low-income countries. Part of the initiative was the development of light applications which work well on phones with low RAM and low CPU power. That could have been a definite plus for everyone with an Android phone. Unfortunately, the developers decided to be evasive about this.
Nowadays, many lightweight apps are only available in certain countries or regions. Plus only works on mid-range or low-end devices. There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason, especially when the option to let everyone use an app is as simple as checking a few boxes on the Google Play Developer Dashboard. It’s not the hottest or most controversial take, but lightweight apps are good, and they should be available to everyone.
There are even situations where people in developed countries with high-end phones can use a simpler, less resource-intensive version of an app. They may live in a rural area with poor reception or be in the midst of a natural disaster. Some people even go to a bad reception area. The thing is, people in emerging markets aren’t the only ones who can benefit. Let’s talk why.
Do you want Lite apps to be available on all phones and countries?
Application resource usage escalates
Joe Hindy / Android Authority
If I were to ask you what do you think are the most resource-intensive apps on Android, chances are you would mention one app on this list. Those who don’t feel like clicking can probably guess the culprits: Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. You know them, the most popular mobile applications with the most downloads.
These apps have topped similar lists for years. As technology becomes more powerful, every big business has taken full advantage of it by making their applications do more things, consume more resources, and consume more of your data. These apps even use more permissions than ever before, increasing the amount of data collected.
The bigger the batteries and the more powerful the hardware becomes, the more applications will benefit.
This is normally not a big problem. After all, more resources and overhead means more performance. The problem is that the net gains you get from buying new hardware are often negated as developers keep adding more stuff to use up those extra resources.
The end result is frustrating. We now have more resources available, even in low-end devices, than in any phone a decade ago, but low-end phones still feel sluggish when they really shouldn’t.
Same tasks, more resources
Joe Hindy / Android Authority
It’s one thing to just throw out statements like I just did above, but there is data to back them up.
Facebook is a prime example. The full app preloads your feed in the background, so it’s always fast and responsive when you open it. Of course, that means it uses a lot of data and CPU cycles in the background. The install size is over 150MB and can go up to 1GB or more without too much trouble with preloaded posts and other data consuming features.
The more CPU cores our phones get, the more CPU cores apps require one way or another despite performing the same tasks.
Facebook Lite, on the other hand, has an install size of less than 5MB, doesn’t preload your feed, and doesn’t automatically play videos unless you’re on Wi-Fi by default. It even uses about 25% fewer permissions than the full Facebook app. Yes, you lose other functionality and your feed scrolls a bit slower, but at least you know when Facebook Lite is using your data.
Facebook Lite just runs less often and uses less data when you’re not in the app. The tradeoff is better battery life, less background usage, and fewer background tasks performed. These perks would be nice to have on all phones, not just the low end ones.
What are the main differences? Facebook vs. Facebook Lite
Most lightweight apps compare the same to their full-size counterparts, like Facebook does. Developers target the wow factor on usability in most cases. After all, they’re trying to get you into their app and keep you there for as long as possible, even if it means destroying your battery life.
Lite apps aren’t just better on resources. They are physically easier to use, with fewer interactions required to access important items.
As per our Facebook example, most people need a full tutorial on how to change basic settings in the regular Facebook app. For example, let’s review disabling autoplay videos in your News Feed. You click on your profile picture, then Settings and privacywhich displays a list in which you click Settings Again. Next, click on your profile picture again, then find Media and contacts to finally get there. That’s five layers of menus to change a setting.
Complexity, storage, and resource usage are significantly higher in full applications than in lite versions.
On Facebook Lite? Click on your profile picture, then Settings. The option to autoplay videos is on quite a long list, but it’s still there after just two interactions, which is 60% less effort for the user. Optimizing for low usage often means developing more streamlined apps, which benefits everyone.
The thing is, the difference between a lite app and a full app is not small. Complexity, storage, and resource usage are all objectively and measurably higher by a fairly large margin in full apps compared to lightweight apps.
Joe Hindy / Android Authority
Wirth’s Law states that software becomes more demanding faster than hardware becomes more powerful. I think this law is true, despite being almost 30 years old. Facebook is, after all, one of the strongest contenders for the biggest resource hog of any mainstream Android app, and has been for its entire Android existence, despite massive advances in hardware.
The lesser known Zawinski’s Law applies a little better. The short version is that apps that people use a lot have increasing pressure to grow until they can do it all. Let’s continue using Facebook as an example. At first it was just a social network where you post words, photos and videos.
Apps where people hang out often try to grow to do it all, tricking people into never leaving.
After a while, Facebook became a forum with its Groups function, a messaging platform with facebook messengera video platform like YouTube, a short film platform like ICT Taca live streaming platform like Tica marketplace like Craigslist, and the list goes on and on.
Another example is Google Chrome. It started as a browser, then grew into a web application platform, and the process continued until it became a full operating system – Chromium operating system. There are plenty of other examples. The fact is that as applications expand beyond their original scope, their resource usage also increases, even if the end user’s needs do not change.
There are a variety of terms for when developers do this stuff. “Feature creep” occurs when software developers keep adding extra stuff, even if it makes the application slow and bloated. “Creeping elegance” occurs when developers care more about how an app looks than how it works. Everything revolves around the same basic idea. These apps are massive and they don’t have to be.
Lite applications counteract this pressure by putting the focus back on the primary use of a given software. Facebook Lite strips out a lot of extras and provides a cleaner, less bloated, less resource-intensive app that does what most people do on Facebook anyway. Not everyone needs a Twitch and Craigslist competitor, and we should have the option to choose what our experience is.
There are also progressive web apps that use your browser to run “apps” instead of installing them. We think this is a very promising technology, but it still uses your browser, which can be just as resource intensive as a full application. The only thing you really save is storage space.
The power of choice
Joe Hindy / Android Authority
Now, I don’t think many people will disagree with me that the choice is good. Many people love the Facebook experience and use all of the app’s features. However, the ability to upgrade to a more basic experience doesn’t hurt anyone.
I know I chose Facebook for this whole article. However, despite all the flaws of Facebook, I can download and use Facebook Lite and Messenger Lite on my Galaxy S22 Ultra in the USA. In fact, Facebook is one of the few companies that makes its lightweight apps widely available, which I appreciate and benefit from.
I would replace almost every app in my app drawer with a lite version if I could. I just don’t use a service often enough to warrant the full app.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to see why most companies keep their lite options exclusive to specific phones or regions of the world. Not only do they want you to use their apps to do everything to keep you engaged with their platform for as long as possible, but they can also serve you more ads and earn more money. Lite apps make less money, but users shouldn’t have to spend significant resources running a social media app no matter where they live or what phone they own.
It’s bad for a company’s bottom line. These lightweight apps are intended to bring the next billion smartphone users into the fold, and over time these new users will need to migrate to the full experience. Still, it would be nice to have the choice.