The great deception of market share numbers

in Google, apple, Android, iOS

This is basically a rant about the whole Android vs iOS issue. I'm sick and tired of people quoting numbers they don't understand, so I just wanted to get a few facts straight.

So, some very common misconceptions regarding the "state" of the ecosystem:

1. Android has the biggest market share, thus it is the most successful OS

Wrong. Dead wrong. Although market share is a big thing, and an important factor to a platform success, it is not as important as the following: 

  • profit share : though Android has the most devices, users buy significantly less "For every $1.00 a developer earns on iOS, he can expect to earn about $0.24 on Android" ( Flurry , less than a year ago ).
  • OS version fragmentation : According to official data for devices using Google Play, Gingerbread (released in 2010) still has ~56% share. The latest version ( Jelly Bean ), release this summer, still has less than 1% share. iOS on the other hand, reached 60% adoption in less than a month
  • vendor fragmentation : There are more than 4000 device models, each with different specs. This is both a blessing and a curse; on one hand, this is what pushes Android to be #1 in market share. On the other, it makes it impossible for developers to tend to quirks on the device ( and trust me, there are many, just doing a search on the official android bug tracker will reap plenty ).

Why is OS version / vendor fragmentation important as part of platform quality? Mainly because users want new features. In the case of Android, due to vendor customizations, they usually cannot. ( To be fair, iOS 6 was the first Apple OS to have features such as native YouTube player app removed, but that didn't seem to slow things down ). 

In addition, there are profound implications about security. Software always comes with bugs, it's in its nature. For Android, the easiest to explore would be the infamous dialer exploit where just by clicking / qr scanning a simple link your device gets wiped. This has been fixed, in the latest versions of the OS, but most people simply do not have it since they don't update to it.

Another extremely important reason is the developers. Contrast building (and testing, supporting) an app for 5 resolutions ( iPhone classic, iPhone Retina, iPhone 5, iPad classic, iPad retina if you want to cover all ) vs hundreds ( again, see here ). This is both an extra burden, less value for developer time, and much worse quality on the end result ( I sincerely doubt that relative layouts can be close to absolute layouts in terms of design, with notable exceptions ).

The above accumulate into a simple fact: "pure" mobile products (ie not accompanying apps for websites, publications, companies etc but actual products like games) usually start development on iOS, since that will return the investment faster, and then expand onto other markets such as Android. End users do notice that, and, at least from personal experience, prefer to go Apple if they can afford to.

2. iOS devices are always the same, with very limited customization available

Absolutely true. And that is by design. 

Android, being flexible as it is, allows you to customize things with widgets, custom screens, the whole shebang. And most users just ignore that. Because most people just want something that works out of the box, and don't spend enough time tinkering around. 

That being said, it's always nice to have the option -- but I don't think it's even close to being as annoying as the options available because of this "feature":

  • Manufacturers abuse this power and create custom UIs ( Samsung being the most notorious ). End result is that switching brands is close enough to switching platforms, since nothing "looks" the same to an end user.
  • Mnufacturers install promotion apps. Well that's something familiar to anyone using a PC laptop -- the problem here is, that vendors include the promotional apps as part of the OS, and they simply cannot be removed. Even if you actually buy the full version, you cannot remove the promo one.
  • Due to such customizations, it is usually impossible to upgrade to a stock version without getting into tedious processes that simple end users don't like gettings involved with (notable exception is the Nexus line).

While I respect the customization options available, I can personally attest that most people don't care. Unfortunately, the minority that do are by far the most vocal.

3. Android has greater selection of apps due to openess ( no walled garden approach )

Again, this is by design, and something that end users prefer. 

It's a common nightmare for iOS developers to get their apps (or app updates) approved. However, they don't mind in the long run, since it means that end users feel safer in downloading and purchasing. There have been multiple occasions where apps have been pulled from Android store because there malware was detected -- by third parties, and after significant damage was done though, both to the user's wallet and the platform image.

In addition, a lot of local apps are probably not found on Google Play, due to the terms of payment for developers. Specifically, if you are not in one of the few countries that are supported by Google Checkout, then you cannot sell paid apps. That sparked the creation of a number of alternative app stores for Android, such as SlideME or Amazon, which furthers the fragmentation experienced by users. Add to the fact that each app store requires different logins, has different prices for the same apps, or different terms, and you end up in quite a nasty situation.

As a final towards openess - do note that even though Android is open, Google services are not. Services such as YouTube, Maps, the Play store are actually licensed per device by the manufacturer, to Google's discretion (which is why Asian devices typically don't have them, and result in even more alternatives and fragmentation). 

4. Final word

Overall, platform selection boils down to personal preference. I tend to prefer Apple mainly because I'm locked in to that platform via my purchases (going to Android would require me to repurchase many of the same apps) and the fact that it feels familiar. I assume it's more of the same for people on the other side of the fence. Android might have fragmentation issues, but the features can outweight the iritation caused in the hands of someone with time to spare. 

The one thing I feel is certain is that market share has nothing to do with why you should choose a device, or which platform is more successful.