Why predictions of the iPhone’s death (at the hands of Android) are greatly exaggerated

The comparison of the growth rates of the iPhone and Android phones is continually a topic of hot debate, in no small part propelled by the highly vocal and emotional fans of both camps. It almost seems conventional wisdom that iPhone vs. Android will be Mac vs. Windows, Part II.

Personally, I believe that on so many layers, this topic is really a non-topic. It provides entertainment value, no doubt, in the form of daily tech soap opera (bloggers jumping on every new data point released and typically extrapolating it beyond meaningfulness to arrive at flame-bait headlines). But from an industry analysis point of view, or a company analysis point of view (scrutinizing Apple / Google), the market share comparisons are really just one data point – it’s meaningful, but certainly not to the degree that the blogosphere claims it to be. Apple’s future is not in jeopardy if iPhone loses pole position to Android.

Over at Wired, Fred Vogelstein takes a crack at this topic. His main point is that if you sum up all the iOS devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad), they are still outselling Android, by as much as 42%. While this may be encouraging to the Apple camp, there is no reason we can expect this to hold, especially when other Android powered devices (e.g. Android tablets) eventually hit the market.

I don’t have any doubt that Android devices will outsell iOS devices. If it hasn’t happened already, it will happen soon. There is no reason to believe an OS from a premium manufacturer (Apple) with an extremely limited range of SKUs can outsell, on a pure volume basis, an OS that is free to use and which is backed by some of the biggest consumer electronics companies in the world. On a dollar value basis, it might be a different story, but still not that likely. On a dollars of profit generated basis though, highly possible (Apple generates more profit than rest of mobile industry combined, with only 3% unit volume share).

That said, the main reason people are obsessed with these market share numbers seem to be the underlying assumption that iPhone and its eco-system will lose its draw to developers, and by extension to consumers, if it is relegated to a minority market share. I think there are at least a couple of counter-arguments to make here.

First of all, being the minority market share platform does not translate into a lack of quality apps, to the extent that it will hamper mass-premium consumers’ (Apple’s core segment) interest in the platform. For example, if you flip the argument over the number of apps in the Android vs. iPhone app stores on its head, you may well say that even though Android has a smaller number of apps, the eco-system is already sizable enough, so that for any functionality there will be “an app for that”. Another example would be none other than Macs – what’s the market share that Mac OS holds in all personal computers? Single digits? Do mainstream Mac users complain about the lack of quality apps (note the emphasis on mainstream – specific categories like hardcore gaming is lacking on the Mac, but even that is seeing improvement)? Holding these two examples, I would argue that with the developer community Apple has already amassed, it would be hard to foresee a drastic dying out of quality apps, even if Android floods the market.

Secondly, if you take a step back and look at the broader trend in computing, it is definitely headed in the direction of platform-agnostic. Some tech purists would even decry the whole notion of apps – everything should be realized on the browser, over the web. If you look at the desktop space, there is indeed the trend of “fat” clients (local apps) losing out to “thin” clients. Indeed, Google is perhaps one of the biggest proponents of this – its whole challenge to Microsoft is based on the browser. If we believe that the same trend will apply to mobile devices, then the apps craze we are experiencing really is just a transition phase – at some point, most of the apps you want would be delivered to you on the browser, as opposed to an app you download (again, Google’s Gmail mobile version on the browser is arguably better than Apple’s Mail app). And let’s give credit where credit is due – when Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, Steve Jobs’ initial vision was to have web apps (browser-based apps) instead of local apps. The app SDK and the app store only came out a year later, due to popular demand. (So you could say that Jobs had already envisioned an end-game where the browser was the point of delivery for apps, not the app store – his vision was perhaps just ahead of its time.)

If you sum these two arguments together, the bigger point is that iPhone will not lose its richness of apps in the face of Android capturing majority market share – it’s big enough already of a market so that there will be quality apps developed, and apps will be platform-agnostic anyway down the road. As long as Apple continue to bring innovation to its devices, it should not be overly worried about losing market share leadership – its whole strategy is founded on premium products, which implies that it won’t be market leader from a revenue / volume perspective. That’s why I wrote the headline of this post.

PS: Also, for people who continually say this will be a rerun of Apple vs. Windows in the 80s, please pause for a moment and reflect on the Mac’s continual resurgence over the last decade. This is again very indicative of the broader trend. In other words, one could almost claim that the “network effects” so famously championed by Wintel is close to becoming irrelevant, because the Internet has leveled the playing field for the small market share OSes.

PS2: And even if we are to talk of the platform wars of the 80s, we should get the facts straight. The following is my reply on a Quora question (similar topic really) awhile back:

First of all, it’s not really windows vs. mac, but PC vs. Mac. I would say by the time windows 3.0 came out, the platform war between PCs and Macs (at least the first war, not including Mac’s resurgence in recent years) was already over.

If you look at this article on Ars Technica, http://arstechnica.com/old/conte…
as early as 1986 PCs already had over 50% market share of computers, and it over-took the mac platform’s shares a few years before that. So in that sense, there never was a windows:mac war, at least not until very recently.

I think one key distinction between the platform wars of the 80s and android:iPhone is that in the 80s it was primarily driven by b2b, not b2c. IBM was late to the personal computers space, but they were the driving force behind making personal computers legitimate for business – they could go to a sales pitch with a business client with a perhaps inferior product but still sell it, and they could generate serious developer interest in developing for the PC. The killer apps of the 80s were spreadsheets and word-processors, sold to businesses. Apple could have better versions of such products on macs, but they couldn’t sell to businesses as quickly as IBM and clones like Compaq could, which is dictated by company structure and channel strategy – they are positioned as a consumer products company, and the only verticals where they made serious progress were education and publishing (where their products were clearly far far superior). That’s where the network effect kicked in and made Macs a niche.

Flash forward 25 years, and smartphone adoption is primarily driven by consumers, not businesses (blackberries being the exception). This is in Apple’s core area of expertise. It will still be challenging to fend off a group of competitors’ collective efforts (Samsung, HTC etc.), but as long as Apple retain a significant portion of the market, it will be in good shape. Apple doesn’t need to be market leader to be hugely profitable and have a sizable eco-system of 3rd party apps etc. – just look at macs today, as a general consumer you have majority of the apps you need to be happy with it (games being one major exception, which is also therefore a good business opportunity).

So back to your original question, I’d say Android:iPhone will play out very differently compared to Windows:Mac. Android might still end up with a more market share, but iPhone will have enough share and a big enough eco-system so that Apple won’t have to go through the kind of existential challenge it had back in the mid 90s.

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