All those people with cheap Android smartphones have finally started buying apps

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It’s great having a huge user base to show off. Less great is not having much to show for it. We have been writing for months about how Android’s large market share hasn’t translated into actual phone usage or, more importantly, app-store sales. Android users consume less data than owners of Apple’s iOS devices, prefer to use Wi-Fi rather than 3G for data connections, and spend less on apps.

That appears to be changing. A report out this week from Distimo, an app analytics firm, estimates that revenue generated by the Google Play Store, from which many Android users get their apps, has grown 67% over the past half-year. By contrast, Apple’s App Store revenue grew 15%, according to Distimo estimates, which cover the top 18 countries. That sounds less impressive if you consider that the App Store brought in twice as much revenue in absolute terms. But the numbers are shifting fast. In February, the App Store was generating three times as much revenue, and last November it out-earned Google Play by a factor of four. Google is gaining.

Much of this growth comes from three countries: the US, Japan and Korea. The US is the world’s second largest smartphone market after China. Japan has enthusiastically embraced Android. And Korea is the home of Samsung, the leader in Android handsets. That these three countries should be the first Android user bases to mature ought not be surprising.

It seems clear too that this is just the beginning. Where the top five free apps on the Apple App Store in July were all games, number one on Google Play was Facebook, followed by WhatsApp. Facebook Messenger comes in at number five. These are apps people download when they first get their phones, not ones they come back for.

What does this all mean? Android has long been considered the poor man’s smartphone with users who are reluctant to spend money. That is true, to a degree. But Distimo’s numbers show it can, over time, be a profitable platform. Indeed, an earlier report (pdf) from Distimo found that WhatsApp—which is free for the first year on Android—made more money from Google Play than the App Store in three western European countries in April. The long-term game may pay off in the rest of the world too.