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.


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.

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