Smartphones

Consumer trend shows Apple closing the gap on Android

Joshua Burke takes a look at a recent Nielson Wire report and gives his own predictions for Apple vs. Android in the smartphone market in 2012.

As 2011 came to a close, Nielson Wire released some rather startling facts:

"Among recent acquirers, meaning those who said they got a new device within the past three months, 44.5 percent of those surveyed in December said they chose an iPhone, compared to just 25.1 percent in October. Furthermore, 57 percent of new iPhone owners surveyed in December said they got an iPhone 4S."

Nielson asserts that iOS is closing the gap on Android and seems to be simultaneously "polishing the apple" as it were. What do these ratings mean for the smartphone space, and could it eventually mean Android taking second place in 2012?

Let's take a look at some observations from the market, Nielson's research, and then my own experience. My prediction is that Apple will not consistently outpace Android in the smartphone space in 2012, but we will begin to see feature parity between them in new ways.

The market

Apple is one company with a single smartphone product. I have an iPhone 4S myself, and I'll be the first to say that it's sexy, awesome, and (in most cases) it just works. I'm also a full-time hardcore mobile device manager for a fairly large company, and I cut my mobile management teeth on Android. In fact, I have about five Android devices on my desk that I also love to use and test daily.

What continues to keep Android ahead of Apple in the market space? It's the proliferation of Android across multiple device manufactures, the openness of the Android OS so the world can customize it for specific needs, and the sheer agility achieved by the open model itself.

Apple vs. Android is like choosing where to go for ice cream (please pardon the obvious pun). Apple may serve the most amazing almond pistachio ice cream, but they only have one flavor and three sizes. If you happen to like very high quality almond pistachio ice cream, then you've found a good match and may join the devotees who say that it's the best ice cream ever.

Android, however, offers many flavors in many sizes and can be found in many places. Android may even have its own version of almond pistachio. There is simply greater flexibility, selection, and variation in the Android smartphone space, which puts it in a far more likely position to maintain a majority of market share.

The Nielson Wire

The data comparison in the Nielson Wire report is between "All Smartphone Users" and "3 Month Recent Acquirers." By looking at the data, we see a rise in both Apple an Android markets -- there's a 7% growth from Apple and a 5.4% growth for Android. Let's look at the laggards.

The combined market share lost by RIM, WinMo, Palm/WebOS, and Symbian correlates with near precision to the market gain across the two larger players. Android and Apple have a combined growth of 12.4%, and the laggards have a combined loss of 12.6%. If we give 1/10th to Windows Phone 7 for actually gaining ground in the ratings, then we have a near perfect match. In my opinion, what we are truly seeing here is a consolidation of vendors in the space instead of Apple taking a bite out of Android's existing install base.

Professional experience

As a mobile device manager for a big company within the financial industry, I manage a lot of BlackBerries, iPhones, and Android devices.

Professionally, I like BlackBerries because they are rock solid and don't require much care and feeding, but sadly, they aren't terribly flexible. The iPhone is a premium consumer-grade device that's trying very hard to play corporate big boy through a combination of marketing and some emerging strategies to make itself truly enterprise ready. Android is staying true to its open roots and not pretending to be consumer or enterprise driven -- it's simply letting the market and developers mold it and shape it however is required.

In my experience, Android has historically been the biggest pain to manage precisely because of its variegation. Many of the major Android handset manufacturers will be dramatically changing this position in 2012 through the integration of 3LM hooks into their kernels. The iPhone is fairly simple to manage within the confines that Apple has defined but hasn't yet demonstrated the flexibility necessary for true enterprise-level integration.

Feature parity?

In my prediction for 2012, I stated that "Apple will not consistently outpace Android in the smartphone space in 2012, but we will begin to see feature parity between them in new ways." What am I talking about? I think we may see dips and spikes in the performance of both platforms over the coming year, with temporary leads by Apple, but I feel that Android will outpace them overall in 2012. I also predict that the two platforms will begin to merge in the customer experience.

Apple has always had absolute ownership of the user experience. There's no smartphone interface that can quite compare to it, especially for first-time buyers. Android has absolute ownership of the extremely flexible, albeit marginally more complex OS.

In order to succeed in 2012, Apple needs to build more flexibility into its interface -- something beyond pushing apps around to different screens. Android can take a note from Apple and start "uncomplicating" its interface a bit. In these ways, the parity between the operating systems will converge in new and interesting ways.

Conclusion

The Nielson Wire report clearly shows a consumer trend toward the iPhone for those who are leaving one of the smaller vendors in the smartphone space. This holds true for my professional experience as well. Most of my BlackBerry users almost drool over the iPhone, and they seem somewhat apprehensive about Android devices because they "might be like my BlackBerry." It seems to be more of a reaction to their old phone rather than the possibilities of the new one.

In many ways, the smartphone space reminds me of the recent ultrabook unpleasantness. Vendors are rushing to market with their latest Macbook Air knockoffs. I've been disappointed in all but a very few select vendors for their blatant pandering after Apple's design. After all, Apple didn't get to be Apple by copying anybody else.

The smartphone space is similar to the ultrabook case above, because many vendors compare their phone with the iPhone -- not because the iPhone is the market leader, but because Apple has done such a good job presenting itself as being innovative, and other vendors want to piggyback on that effort.

An Android phone that looks and works like an iPhone would be a step backwards for the OS. An iPhone that looks and works like an Android would also be a step in the wrong direction for Apple. Instead, each offering can stand on the experience of the others in the market space to build better phones and better functionality for the end user.

At the end of the day, the phone that consumers will buy is the phone that makes sense to them. I've talked to many people who had an Android and couldn't wait to dump it for an iPhone. Conversely, I've talked to many iPhone owners who can't wait to get an Android phone. These aren't rational, data driven decisions. Instead, they are emotional, raw, gut reactions to the device and its operating system. After all, a smartphone is an extension of who we are and how we work. Both vendors would do well to take note of this often overlooked fact and design their offerings accordingly.

6 comments
Pravat
Pravat

It???s not only about how many number of devices out there, it???s also about the number of features that are being utilized on each of those devices. E.g. devices like Galaxy SII has that usability thus the impact but compare that with Galaxy y. Choice with Android is true but majority of it is driven by cost, either you accept it or not, that???s the fact. iOS just works, yes it???s a closed world but in that case how many are switching to Linux Desktops just because Windows 7 is closed? If not only about cost, it???s always about cost to usability ratio, if not how come Android isn???t able to make inroads in tablet market? Answer: they aren???t able to compete with iPad usability and of course the price point, and for the same significant usability to price factor, devices like Amazon Fire able to grab market attention.

dcolbert
dcolbert

When talking about the issues that plague Android handsets and tablets - it is easy to forget that the original iPad had an issue with WiFi, DHCP and certain home routers. It is easy to forget Antenna-gate or the recent issues with Siri. But in general, Apple has their bases well covered when they do a release to market of their iOS devices. It seems like they've got better testing and QA programs in place. Motorola should know darned-well before they release the Razr that the camera is taking worse photographs at 8MP than a Droid 2 at 5MP. I think they *do* know - and they go ahead and release anyhow. I think in the case of the Razr, they made the darn thing so small that they couldn't get the same quality of optics in the camera-bulge as they could in an older, thicker device. Rather than delay and figure out how to address this problem they reasoned, "people will buy it because it is thin, and then realize the camera is worse than what they had, but by then, it'll be too late and they'll just live with it". This is a short-term strategy with long term consequences and one Apple seems to avoid better. If Apple couldn't make the iPhone thinner without depreciating the quality of the camera compared to the previous generation, I have no doubt they would delay the thinner device until they figured out how to overcome that challenge. Too many Android vendors seem intent on cashing in quickly. Apple plays a long term game. If top-tier Android handset manufacturers don't get on the ball and realize this - they're going to inevitably give up market share to Apple. I don't think it will ever be to the point where Apple gains an insurmountable lead... at least, not anytime soon. But they'll loose customers, and many of those customers are going to go to iOS.

dcolbert
dcolbert

Like the author, I have a number of Android and a number of iOS devices. I think that is part of the problem, too. We can skew these numbers by what we include or do not include as an Android or iOS device. I think some of the responses here point out a pretty obvious observation - that a lot of iPhone 4S sales were a seasonal spike given as gifts - and that Android is going to see less of a bump due to seasonal gifting than iOS. But to say that this alone is responsible for Apple's statistical climb might be wishful thinking as well. Having an iPhone under the tree is far more exciting than having a RAZR, Bionic or Galaxy Nexus under the tree, for sure, especially for teens and young adults. But I think there has also been growing discontent with some of the difficulties with the Android platform among the user-base, and that can't hurt Apple's sales. The Transformer Prime was eagerly anticipated, and ASUS botched the deployment of this tablet far worse than their flubs releasing the original Transformer. The original was plagued by supply shortages and a significant battery drain problem. The latest added a serious GPS and WiFi problem and a locked bootloader - and still was in significantly short supply on release. Recently I had a reason to use my old iPad, which I gave to my wife. The 1st generation iPad still feels smoother and more responsive in most tasks than my Transformer - and I'm not convinced that a Transformer Prime would address those issues. I'm hesitant to upgrade to ICS when it becomes released until other people play the canary in the coal-mine and I'm certain that the experience is improved, not made worse - by the new OS. The feedback I'm seeing online does not indicate that ICS is a step forward. Likewise, my Droid 2 is growing long in the tooth, but a number of reviews of current top-of-the-line Android handsets has me holding off even though I am currently eligible for my New-Every-Two upgrade period. The Razr has no user replaceable battery and a simply horrible camera. The Galaxy Nexus doesn't have an SD slot. I'm waiting to see what the Droid 4 feels like - although I'm watching a couple other makers offerings, too. For many users - doing away with these kind of issues and picking up an iPhone is the logical answer. It makes these questions easy. Apple manages their releases so that even if the next iteration is marginally better - it is always a step forward. Now - they may achieve this by always releasing a device that holds back a little - but the perception is what matters (much like how their screen ALWAYS responds to input, even if it can't actually render the display fast enough). Battery drain, Force Closes, rebooting devices, and widely varying equipment quality are all things that hold Android back. Just today, on my drive in, I needed to make a call so I grabbed my Droid 2. It was at a text-message screen, and I hit the back arrow. The screen went black and it hung there for an extended period of time. After waiting until I was frustrated, I simply hit the call button on my in-car OnStar. I had already placed the call and it was ringing by the time the Droid 2 became responsive. I've missed picture opportunities and had other needs that had passed by the time the device or app became responsive on my Droid 2 on numerous occasions. These are things a user like myself is willing to tolerate. But a lot of users will just dump Android and go to Apple when they encounter these things on a regular basis. And Verizon offering the iPhone weighs in heavily too. As a Verizon shop, the majority of our smart-phone users were on Android devices until VZW offered the iPhone. Now there is rough parity, with the advantage going to Apple. So anecdotal evidence suggests to me that this may be a more widespread trend than just at our shop. All of these things combined lead me to believe that we'll see a lot more back and forth and the kind of parity the author describes in 2012 between the two platforms. Android is also besieged with patent lawsuits and other challenges that do not affect iOS and make the Android future uncertain. I'm not iOS pundit - ask Vulpine or any number of readers who have ever implied that I am an Android shill. Android and Android device manufacturers have a lot of things to get in order in 2012. There is no doubt in my mind that Android has more potential and is a better long-term deal for the consumer - but that won't matter if they can't overcome some of their perceptual and actual challenges in the short term.

carlos
carlos

That's an awful lot of analysis to come up with the wrong conclusion. Clearly Android is outperforming Apple. Your own poll suggests it.

bugsie857
bugsie857

The title should read "sales spike"...

rhonin
rhonin

Extrapolate this over the calendar year and you will find the conclusion incorrect. Sales of the iPhone are cyclic with the holiday season and launch season being the top sell points. Android on the other hand has a much flatter period. For a yearly period, Android has continued to outperform the iPhone and will continue to do so. If not for SIRI and the missperceived functionality of the 4S, Apple would have had a dismal season when compared to expectations.

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