Forget today's smartphone profits: Apple and Samsung increasingly split those relatively evenly, as research from Canaccord Genuity shows. But the real question is where the mobile industry is heading, and who will clean up. Increasingly, the answer to both questions is "Google."
Google's stated mission is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Put in commercial terms, however, Google's mission is to get everyone on the planet using the Internet. Why? Because the Internet is Google's piggybank.
As Asymco uncovers, excluding China, Google earns roughly $6.30 per Internet user per year:
While that may not seem like much, it's pretty significant when we take into account that there are roughly 2.5 billion Internet users today.
But the real opportunity for Google, and why Android is such a smart long-term bet for it, is the other 65% of the planet that still doesn't use the Internet, as Asymco highlights:
Google may not claim a full $6.30 from these emerging markets, but it's still worth tens of billions of dollars each year, especially since most of the world will experience the Internet through mobile devices, not traditional PCs.
While this same audience is up for grabs for Apple, too, Apple intentionally prices itself out of the competition. It's impossible to be both a high-margin, market share leader in a competitive market. It's against the laws of basic economics.
Apple's ability to reap the majority of industry profits was anomalous, and has been effectively curtailed by Android-based Samsung's rise. While Apple has taken some steps toward lowering prices in order to compete in emerging markets, its heart is ultimately not in a low-margin business.
And let's face it: the emerging markets are where the action is. The U.S. is already over 80% Internet penetration. Most European countries are at least 70% saturated. Add in mobile phone subscriber numbers, and it's clear that the only real growth left in developed economies is getting users to trade up to more expensive smartphones and tablets. In emerging economies, however, there is still tremendous room to move users from feature phones to Internet-enabled smartphones.
Which means the field is ripe for Android.
Which is the not the same thing as arguing that Android is a developer's paradise. Apple advocates are quick to point to the fact that Apple iOS developers make five times more per download than Android developers. Apple customers seem to use their devices for a greater variety of purposes, and are willing to pay up for content.
That's fine, but it's not necessarily indicative of where we're going. It's very likely that developing markets will require local applications. An ostrich farmer in Namibia is more likely to need to use the web to check market prices than to buy the latest Angry Birds app.
And when they use the web, they will slowly be dropping Namibian dollars into Google's pocket.
There's a reason that the hottest job trend, as measured by Indeed.com, is HTML5. And why Firefox, an OS that puts the web first, has seen growing success in emerging markets, along with Android. Apps can be useful, but the web is infinitely more useful, and Android is all about delivering the web...along with Google services to accentuate users' web experience.
Google could have given up when Apple took the stage to trumpet its 90% share of the smartphone market. Instead Google took the long view, working to grow the overall size of the web-enabled mobile market. After all, there was a lot at stake. Namely $6.30 per Internet user.
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.