It's been a little over four years since the first Android phone went on sale. Despite Apple's one-year lead, devices running Google's mobile operating system now regularly beat Apple's iPhone in sales figures. Google chairman Eric Schmidt expects there will be a billion Android devices by next year.
But when it comes to what people actually do with those phones, studies show an unintuitive result: iOS users simply use their devices more. They surf the Web more. They buy more apps, and developers write more apps for them. They generate more advertising revenue per person. They spend more on e-commerce sites.
They even watch more video, which must be frustrating for Google, considering that it owns YouTube and has heavily backed Android in part to contest Apple's mobile hegemony.
The video-viewing data comes from a new study by FreeWheel, a company which manages video ads for its customers and has examined billions of video ad impressions across its network. (Its study focused mostly on US viewers, though some non-US viewers were included.)
Apple's mobile devices—iPhones, iPads, and iPods—accounted for 60 percent of non-PC video views in the third quarter, according to FreeWheel. Android devices had 30 percent. While Android viewing is growing fast and starting to catch up, it's far behind what you'd expect from Android's device market share.
Google executives have consistently argued that raw numbers matter and will sway developers over time. And Apple does have an advantage in its installed base which will erode over time. But there's something puzzling over the consistently lower usage numbers we see across all manner of online behavior.
There are a number of possible explanations, all unsatisfactory.
- Android devices are generally cheaper. So is the demographic buying them less likely to pay for expensive data plans and consume online data? Possibly. But another demographic where Android is popular are the techie early adopters, whom you'd expect to use their phones more heavily, balancing out the low-end users.
- Android devices are harder to use. This argument, of course, will be beloved by Apple fans. But it doesn't hold together. As Business Insider's Dylan Love has pointed out, there are a number of areas where Android has a demonstrably better user interface. (Let's not even mention Apple's misbegotten Maps app.)
- Android's commerce features aren't as good. This seems like the fairest point. Apple has had years of experience in e-commerce. Apple's online store launched a full year before Google even came into existence, and it parlayed that experience into launching first the iTunes Music Store and then the App Store. Buying with an iTunes account is a smoother, easier experience than using Google's commerce tools.
Some of these problems seem fixable. Google was smart to roll up its Android Market app store and its other content-purchase services into Google Play. Now it needs to stop tinkering with Google Wallet's wireless-payment features and figure out how to make the online-purchasing experience as good as possible.
But content purchasing is one thing. The gap in content consumption—especially the free, advertising-supported kind, where Google thrives—is more worrisome. That speaks to some ineffable human factor that Google's algorithms, for all their mechanistic glory, just can't get right.
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