Class Warfare, Fragmentation, Usability Gap? The Android vs iOS Engagement Paradox

Class Warfare, Fragmentation, Usability Gap? The Android vs iOS Engagement Paradox

You can use the Polar app to vote on this question (click on image.) Guess who’s winning?

I have been scratching my head over the Android “engagement paradox,” the idea that although Android market share is surging, its share of mobile browsing is lagging way behind. The problem is the most acute with tablets, where Android’s pathetic slice of browser traffic led Tim Cook to quip at the iPhone 5 launch, “iPad accounts for 91% of all the web traffic from tablets. I don’t know what these other tablets are doing. They must be in warehouses or on store shelves, or maybe in someone’s drawer.”

There has been much discussion on the internets about this topic, including a very smart, detailed thread started by MG Siegler on Branch, Android vs iOS Usage, based on the article “The Android Engagement Paradox,” by Horace Dediu on the Asymco blog. This turns out to be a complicated issue to unpack, with data statistically skewed in many directions, but here are the main points:

Class Warfare: This may seem inflammatory or impolitic, but iOS users, in aggregate, are richer, more tech savvy and have more access to bandwidth, particularly wifi, than Android users. Complaining that Android users keep their devices in a drawer is like blaming a plastic spoon user for consuming less caviar than a silver spoon user. Not all Android users are low-end, of course, and the usage stats on high-end devices that run Android 4 are on par with iOS. (Windows Phone browser usage stats, interestingly, are actually significantly higher, proportionally, than its minute market share.) It’s not only economic, but also age related. User Interface expert Scott Jenson tells me about the usage of his children, “my two younger sons both have Androids, one with no internet plan and the other with very limited one. My oldest, working son has an iPhone. Guess which one surfs more?”

Fragmentation: When I have read descriptions of the fragmentation problem on the Android platform, it was all mostly about the wide variety of devices and different versions of the OS that make it difficult for developers to know which features they can reliably target. But the fissures are even deeper in the user base. In the U.S. and many other countries, inexpensive Android devices are the replacement for the feature phones most consumers have been using. A feature phone user carries their minimal expectations with them to their new device. It turns out that just giving someone a smartphone doesn’t make them a smartphone user. They need habits of use that take advantage of the new functionality they now possess. iOS users, in contrast, are much more interested from the get-go in what their device can do, though few of us really tap anything near the full computing capacity of what we carry in our pockets.

WiFi vs Cellular: With the data now available from Akamai IO, it’s clear that there is a big difference between Android use on cellular vs non-cellular (i.e. WiFi) networks. The graphs for all traffic and non-cellular traffic look almost identical, the picture for cellular only traffic is strikingly different. In terms of cellular traffic, Android comes out on top of iOS, although given its larger market share, the per capita usage is still lower, but not dramatically so. Portland, OR based mobile strategist at CloudFour, Jason Grigsby explains in a post on this issue that, “People at lower income levels are less likely to have access to Wi-Fi networks on a regular basis.” So there is an economic angle to this network disparity, as well.

The Usability Gap: Most casual observers have made the assumption (and Apple has done nothing to disabuse them of this) that people use their iPhones and particularly their iPads much more than Android devices because they provide such a superior user experience. While there is some truth to this, Grigsby also makes the point that “The UI for joining a Wi-Fi network on Android is easy to miss.” Since many Android users are first-time smartphone users, they are not savvy about finding WiFi hotspots and the user interface doesn’t provide them with appropriate triggers to remind them to do so.

Alignment Between Parties: Mobile consultant Luke Wroblewski (that’s his Polar app displayed in the opening image) makes one of the most sophisticated points about the engagement difference. Apple, who is in control of all aspects of their product, is able to incentivize users and mobile carriers to drive usage. Android, on the other hand, is a kingdom of competing interests and divergent motivations—a kind of Game of Thrones for mobile. “The fact is that most parties in the Android ecosystem are not incentivized to drive engagement,” Wroblewski tells me. The carriers want to make users pay for their data usage and the device manufacturers want to move users on to the next device. “It’s Google who is strongly incentivized to increase engagement especially with their services but they are only one out of three players.” On the other hand, “For iOS, Apple tells the carriers what it wants and it is incentivized to get you to use your device and love it as much as possible so you buy more Apple products.” All of these competing interests on the Android platform mean that “the quality and focus on the end user experience is not there. And we all know a good user experience drives more engagement: fast, easy, beautiful, etc.” Android is, in a sense, death by a thousand cuts.

One tech exec I know, with a lot of usage data at his fingertips, told me flat out that the two platforms have different kinds of users. On the Branch discussion, Daring Fireball‘s Apple-centric blogger John Gruber goes farther to point out, “The elephant in the room: people who choose iOS devices are better customers than people who choose Android. Or inverted: iOS (and iOS devices) are designed to attract better customers. I think the reason many shy from stating this bluntly is that ‘better customers’ sounds dangerously close to ‘better people.” But there’s no reason to tip-toe around this. There’s no hypocrisy in believing that all men are created equal, but all customers are not.” I think the surprising thing is how large the “high-end” user base is that Apple has put together around their iOS products.

Although iOS users can be fairly characterized as more affluent and tech-savvy then their Android counterparts, they are, in fact, quite diverse in terms of age, tech mastery and even income. Following Steve Jobs‘ lead, Apple continues to create the high-end experience—and charging a premium for it—knowing that today’s high-end will be the baseline that users all expect in two or three years. Apple and Google’s approaches to their mobile platforms represent two distinct tech paradigms. Apple’s integrated, closed source model has led to high-quality user experience and fat profit margins. Google’s open source approach has led to explosive growth, but a loss of control. Although Google makes money off Android only through the services it provides through the platform, a large portion of Android devices, for instance in China, use home-grown services from which Google earns no revenues, and has no control.

The biggest reason, it turns out, for the vast disparity in browser usage between Android and iOS, is how many low-end Android devices there are out there in the hands of users with little motivation to upgrade. Apple, with its end-to-end control if its ecosystem, has been brilliant at motivating its users to constantly upgrade their devices, apps and operating systems. As the replacement cycle naturally increases the number of higher-end Android devices in the market, I would expect these differences to level out somewhat, but by then Apple will be aligned on to the next thing—while Android’s players will still be checking their compasses.

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