I've been asking a basic question about Android for quite a while: what the heck are they doing with all those Android devices? Thanks to a couple of recent studies from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP), we're starting to get some color on that question.
At issue is the discrepancy between the gagillions of Android devices sold around the world—Android had somewhere around 80 percent market share in the June quarter—and the massively disproportionate use enjoyed by iPhone and iPad. Every metric I have seen says that iOS device owners do more with their devices, including Web browsing, app usage, shopping, app downloads, paid downloads, pictures uploaded, ad taps...every single metric.
The one metric where Android has been showing progress is total downloads. Earlier this month, Google Play downloads surpassed Apple's App Store for the first time. But, considering how many more Android devices have been sold, getting excited about that is kind of like patting a child on the head for only spilling most of the macaroni onto the floor.
Maraschino or Fresh?
One factor is that Android partisans like to cherry pick their numbers. They, and Google, like to talk about the huge numbers of total Android device activations around the world. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and CEO Larry Page have both touted that they've reached 1.5 million activations per day.
That's a staggering number that blithely ignores the reality that most of those devices are cheap devices with cheap specs that are used like feature phones (phone calls and text). This is particularly true in emerging markets where no-name hardware makers still churn out devices running antique versions of Android 2.x.
Here's a page on Alibaba (a top Chinese ecommerce site/service) with a ton of Android devices running Android 2.3. I didn't look very hard to find that, either. In fact, here's a current product from CoolPad, a popular Chinese brand that sells a smartphone today in the U.S. running Android 2.3.7.
Mmmmm...good. No wait, this tastes terrible! (Plus Loose Car Analogies)
Those devices do Google little good because users aren't using their devices to contribute significantly to the user profiles that are Google's product. In emerging markets—especially China—many of these low end devices come with no Google services at all. Their makers are getting a free ride for an operating system without giving back to the ecosystem.
They don't do Android developers any good, either. These device owners don't download apps, and most don't have ready access to Google Play in the first place.
Including these cheap devices when considering the size of the Android platform would be like considering sales of the Yugo when considering the size of the car industry. Or the Chevy Chevette. Or the Trabant.
My analogy isn't perfect because those models didn't sell in large volumes, not even in aggregate, but my point is that those cars barely functioned as cars and had life spans sometimes measured in months. In the same fashion, the cheapest smartphones aren't smart in any practical way.
If one were to exclude these devices when looking at usage metrics, the discrepancy becomes must less bizarre, at least to me. We'd still see that iOS users as a whole use their devices more than this subset of Android users, but it wouldn't be the shocking difference we see when comparing against Android as a whole.
To wit, nineteen times more shopping on iOS devices than Android with the same number of devices is staggering, but nineteen times much shopping with 1/4 of the devices is mind boggling. (Note that this particular factoid is about nine months old—today's numbers would surely be different.)
What About CIRP?
OK, so that's part of the equation, but CIRP has been looking at the U.S. market, and the firm's studies show a couple of interesting things about smartphone users. Last week, as covered by Fortune's Philip Elmer-Dewitt, we learned that Apple's brand loyalty crushes Samsung, but that's not germane to today's topic.
What is pertinent is that Samsung in particular gets more first-time customers than Apple, that Apple's customers are more educated and younger, and that they make more money. If that's the case, no wonder Android usage lags behind iOS.
Cut to this week, and a new report from CIRP looking at Android as a whole compared to iOS (covered by Mr. Elmer-Dewitt). According to that survey, Android owners are three times more likely to have purchased their device at the big discount giants (Wal-mart, Sam's Club, Costco) than iPhone owners. They're also more likely to be new to smartphones.
And, as Philip Elmer-Dewitt put it, "CIRP found that Americans who buy Android phones tend to be older, less wealthy and less well educated than those who buy iPhones."
Ah, I Get It
I personally have no doubt that what CIRP found for Android and Samsung is skewed by the vast numbers of cheap devices Samsung sells when Apple sells none. If you looked at just owners of HTC One, Galaxy Note II, Galaxy S3, Galaxy S4, Nexus 4, and a couple of other devices, my gut says those users are very similar to Apple's iPhone customers in age, income education, and wealth.
It's the customers who buy the massive range of other products that are new to smartphones, less wealthy, older, and less educated, and many of these users aren't looking for a computer they can put in their pocket. Many might only have a vague idea of what a smartphone is.
Those of us in the echo chamber might scoff at the idea, but in the larger American market, it's true. Most people do not obsess about this stuff.
When you combine low-end specs, poor quality screens, customer service that doesn't have the time or training to properly educate their customers, and a lack of familiarity with smartphone concepts, it's no wonder Android usage lags so far behind iOS.
CIRP's data suggests to me that this is just as true in the U.S. as it is in emerging markets, though with lower percentages.
ZOMG THE COOLEST!
I think this is at the heart of the disconnect that phandroids have about their platform of choice. They think that because they make the most of their devices, every other Android user must be, too. The usage data says that isn't so, and now we have some demographic data to explain it.
Jellybean made with help from Shutterstock.