By Alok Saboo on August 3rd, 2011
In 2005, when Google acquired an obscure startup Android, few would have thought that Android will go on to become such a huge phenomenon. Android came to stage almost 1.5 years after Apple introduced its first version of iOS and honestly the first version of Android was nothing short of an experiment. Not surprisingly, Apple gained a huge momentum in the smart phone space (look at the chart below). While Google was still trying to learn to walk, Apple was literally flying, rapidly capturing around 20% of global smartphone sales in less than a year of introduction. Fast forward to today, and Android is clearly the leader at least in terms of number of devices shipped. We can debate about the accuracy of the figures, but there is little doubt that Android shipments are growing exponentially, whereas Apple growth is rather modest.
I have been closely following the smart phone space since the beginning and I feel it is opportune to reflect back and isolate the factors that contributed to the meteoric rise of Android. However, instead of relying on my own opinions, I decided to do an objective evaluation of why consumers prefer Android over other platforms.
I undertook a qualitative study and spoke to over 50 people who adopted Android over other platforms. In line with the qualitative research protocols, I then transcribed my interviews and looked for trends or themes across these responses. Here is the summary of my study.
Why did you choose Google Android over Apple iPhone?
The first thing that I did was create a tag cloud from these response to see the broad themes. Here’s the cloud after removing the common English words and other words specific to this context (e.g., Android, iPhone, Google, Apple, Phone, Thank, iTunes, People).
I was actually pleased with the above cloud as it definitely maps to the factors that I had in my mind. The following categorization (and description) should help you absorb the figure.
Android = More CHOICES
One of the most compelling arguments in favor of Android was the flexibility and choices offered by the platform. While the number of devices with iOS is just 1 (or 4, if you consider the three iPhones as separate devices), the variety of devices on Android is mind blowing. There are at least around 300 devices from different manufacturers available to satisfy your Android demands. The choices are evident not only in the number of devices available, but also in terms of what you can do on those devices. Android offers almost limitless customization options, including changing your (default) browser, home screen, and keyboard (e.g., Swype). It even allows you to use your phone as a hotspot and change batteries. Multitasking and notifications are very well implemented in Android, something that Apple has still not been able to catch up. Android users even have the option to choose between the Android Market and Amazon Appstore.
Apple fan boys can say that these are petty issues. May be they are, but the point is not these specific choices. By providing choices, Google is shifting the “locus of control” to the consumers (i.e., internal locus of control). Apple on the other hand curbs these choices and, in process, is shifting the locus of control away from the consumers (i.e., external locus of control). Locus of control reflects how much consumers believe that they are in control of their own behavior and the outcomes in their lives. Those with external locus of control (e.g., Apple) believe they are dominated by external forces such as fate, luck or powerful others, factors that are beyond their control. Research has highlighted that demographically, internals tend to be more educated, have higher incomes, possess entrepreneurial qualities, and are more influential.
Thus, internals (who desire to be in control of their behavior and actions) self select themselves into choosing Android and influence others around them to choose the same.
Easy Availability of Android Devices
Another factor that contributes to Android popularity may simply be availability of Android devices. Apple is the only company supplying iOS devices and hence it is understandable that the company may be unable to meet the demands of consumers. Further, Apple does not have a great international presence. In contrast, Android handset manufacturers such as Motorola, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, HTC, and LG have a huge international presence. Thus, they can easily reach out and cater to the demands of international users. Even in the US market, the iPhone is almost always out of stock for a significant period after launch. It is only after the device becomes “old” does it become available in the stores for you to just walk up and buy. But, by then Android manufacturers have already moved to the next iteration of their products.
If you are familiar with product life cycle, you will realize that as a product category matures, the consumers become increasingly price sensitive. The innovators or early adopters are almost price insensitive, allowing manufacturers to charge premium price for their products. Smartphone space has clearly moved out of the early growth phase and price is becoming an important factor in consumer decision making.
Android devices are definitely cheaper then their Apple counterparts. Two factors may be contributing to this. Firstly, Google is providing the Android OS for “free” and hence handset manufacturers do not have to invest in development and maintenance of the software, saving them tons of monies in R&D. Secondly, the higher number of Android manufacturers may be creating internal competition among Android manufacturers, leading do drop in prices.
Whatever the reason, consumers can get an Android smart phone for a lot cheaper. Just to give an example, my brother in India got an unlocked Android 2.2 Samsung handset for $200 in India. Beat that Apple!!
Tighter Integration with Google Services
There are lot of reports that suggest that an average Google user is technologically sophisticated, educated, and richer as compared to the rest of the population. That description maps very closely to an average smartphone users. Consequently, it is more likely that an average smart phone is a heavy user of Google services.
Thus, it only helps that Android is very tightly integrated with all the Google services. Not only has Google created a huge ecosystem of great services, it has integrated them very well with Android. Apple on the other hand does not have native services that it can integrate with it OS. Don’t even mention MobileMe…
Another factor that seems to shift the balance in favor of Android is the impressive list of features that Android supports.
Cloud Sync: While Steve Jobs touts Apple’s products as post-PC era, they still rely (until at least iOS5) on iTunes. Android truly delivers the post-PC experience, in that you can use Android devices completely without ever needing a PC.
Multitasking: Although Apple introduced multitasking in the last few iterations of iOS, it still seems to be half baked. Android was built up with multitasking in mind and hence does a much better job at it.
Notifications: The iOS notification system is horribly screwed. Android has a very elegant system to manage notifications.
Miscellaneous: In addition to some of the above listed features, Android has better support for voice commands and provides FREE turn-by-turn navigation.
The fact that Apple is almost incorporating most of these in the new iOS5 is an acknowledgement that Android is clearly superior in some of these domains.
Finally, for some of the respondents, the decision is personal. Some respondents just hate Apple, partly for its draconian policies on what can and cannot run on their devices. This partly stems from the locus of control argument that I made earlier, as consumers may feel that they cannot fully utilize the power of the device that they OWN. Users feel that they can get latest devices with Android. With Apple’s year long development cycle, the iPhone may not be the most feature-rich smart phone for the most part of the year.
Few others do not want to be one of the millions with an iPhone. For many people, the phone that they use is a reflection of their personality and an iPhone does not satisfy the desire to stand out from the crowd. Further, it is important to realize that consumer tastes and preferences are heterogeneous and an iPhone may not be the best alternative for everyone. There is (and always will be) a significant market that Apple will never be able to own.
Lastly, some users are using Android devices so as to familiarize themselves so that they can develop apps for Android.
As with any qualitative study, the usual disclaimer applies that the results may be based on my sample and my interpretation of their responses, but the results seem to have some face validity. It will be hard to debunk all the above points. In some sense, it seems that Android could make such serious progress partly due to Apple’s policies. Instead of trying to control the entire value chain like Apple, Google decided to partner with several companies to deliver value. By sharing the riches with other firms, Google created an army to compete with Apple.
That said, the iPhone is what it is because of the decisions that Apple made along the way. Clearly, Apple is a dominant force in this space and still commands the majority of profit share in smart phone sales. However, it is important to realize that Google’s objectives from Android are not the same as Apple’s objectives from iOS. While Apple makes direct profits from sale of iPhones, Google does not make profits from the sale of Android devices. For Google, Android is a strategic tool to increase its mobile presence and increase user touch points (read how Android fits into Google’s strategy).
In sum, Google needs volumes and its strategies are geared towards that. Apple, on the other hand, has always been profit focused and hence Apple may be willing to “loose” market share to maintain the profit share.
[Shipment charts adopted from CNN]