Android, iOS and Ericsson’s new leaky bucket meet the featurephone swamp


“You sell those Apple-Google-Samsung phones here?” Photo by rante_to4ak on Flickr.

Amid the tedious rows that punctuate the smartphone landscape, a recurrent cause of outraged comments is the idea of “switching”: that people might actually move from one smartphone platform to another, and do it of their own volition, and to a platform that is different from the one the commenter uses.

This tends to be seen not as an interesting insight into consumer behaviour, but instead as some sort of outright offence. That in itself is quite telling: it shows how personal our smartphones are. Insult (or leave) my smartphone platform, insult me.

That said, study after study tends to suggest the same thing: as a smartphone platform, Android is a “leaky bucket”: people join, but they leave too. By contrast, the iPhone is more of a roach motel (or Hotel California, if you prefer): people join, and they tend to stay.

There are plenty of examples of earlier studies that suggested this. Here’s an August 2013 piece I did on the “leaky bucket” prediction by Yankee Group, which has some supporting data from CIRP, and another from January 2014 by a UK company called Foolproof. Note how a lot of the comments say it’s nonsense because, well, it just must be.

Now there’s a new switching study, embedded in Ericsson’s Mobility Report for Q3 2015. You have to scroll down a fair way to find it (it’s on page 28/9), but it’s summed up in two graphics, where it splits the movement between the three mobile ecosystems into a “before a new iPhone launch” and “after a new iPhone launch”. Here’s “before”:

Ericsson: switching behaviour before iPhone  launch

And “after”:

Ericsson: platform loyalty after iPhone launch

Note the caveat of where the data comes from:

“This analysis is based on measurements before and after the launch of new iOS smartphone models in a selected number of mature mobile broadband networks in Europe, Asia and North America. The study encompassed iOS, Android and Windows devices. Other operating systems like BlackBerry, Symbian and FirefoxOS had very low penetration in all measured networks and therefore were not included.”

“Mature markets” probably means the US, Canada, some or most of the “big five” in Europe (UK, Germany, France, Spain, Italy) and perhaps a couple of others, plus Japan, China and perhaps South Korea.

So those who want to disagree with this data will already be saying “bah, mature markets”.

The mature approach

That overlooks the fact though that all markets for a product eventually become mature markets. Ericsson is giving us a glimpse of the future.

What the data says is quite informative. A few quick takeaways:
• in a “before” month, 6.3% of people buy a new phone – though only 2.87% (45% of them) change platforms
• in an “after” month, 10.3% buy a new phone – with 3.4% (33%) of them changing platforms. (Nearly half of those buying a new phone are iPhone owners.)
• nobody, by this data, ever changes from an iPhone to Windows. Yes, yes, I know your second aunt’s cousin who works in IT did, but we’re talking here about scale – across millions of users. 0.01% of a million equates to 100 people. Apparently not even at that scale does this happen enough to register.
• on the 6.3% and 10.3% turnover rate, everyone replaces their phone somewhere between 10 and 16 months.
• Windows Phone users seem to be the busiest in buying phones.

I thought it would be interesting to model how this changes the user base if it’s repeated over time. Note that Ericsson is suggesting it’s only a snapshot for a few weeks, and only for people who get a new phone and stay on the same carrier. (But the latter is true of most people.) If this is how things play out, perhaps we can learn something. So I put the data into a spreadsheet, and set up the algorithm to step through month by month according to the Ericsson platform change stats. So from 10,000 Android users, in a “before” month you’d get 30 going to iOS and 7 to Windows Phone (see the diagram above). And so on.

My spreadsheet is here. I used the 1.4bn figure for the Android base, 400m for the iPhone, and 80m for Windows Phone – about the total number of Lumias sold since their inception. (The extra 0.1 that appears over time is due to imprecision in the calculation – each “before” month adds 0.01 to the figure.)

The graph doesn’t show much perceptible change:

Modelling platform change from Ericsson data

Note that this assumes 15 months with only one iPhone launch.

Note that this is over 16 months, but with only one iPhone “launch” right at the start (whose effects then carry on for four months) – so you can see that the iPhone launch doesn’t make a big difference to the general trend.

Equally, you can also see that there isn’t a huge amount of movement. The iPhone chunk gets wider: in this example, with a four-month “after launch” period and eight-month “before launch” period, by the end of the 12th month
• the iPhone has gained 51.9m users
• Android has lost 40.1m
• Windows Phone has lost 11.8m.

In percentage terms, it’s pretty unimportant to Android – 2.9% loss – but big for iPhone (+13.0%) and bigger for Windows Phone (-14.8%).

If you change to a 12-month “before launch” year, the changes are -25.1m for Android (1.8% change), +31.1m for iPhone (+7.2%), and -5.9m for Windows Phone (8.2%).

You can quibble with the starting figures. Playing around with them, I found the following properties:
• the larger the initial figure for Android, the larger its final fall (obvious) but also the larger its percentage fall
• the larger the initial figure for iOS, the smaller the absolute and percentage growth
• iOS is the only platform to show overall growth on any combination of the “before launch”/”after launch” model.

The featurephone swamp

In which case, you might ask, howcome Android’s installed base is still growing? Simple: there’s still a huge base of featurephone owners who are being converted upwards to smartphones. They’re easy to overlook, but key to this dynamic.

For instance, in the Yankee Group study from August 2013 quoted above, the key mistake that it made in forecasting that iPhone use would overtake Android use by 2014 was to overlook the continuing source of new Android users – from featurephone owners moving to smartphones. In August 2013, there were 90m of them, according to ComScore; the latest figure, from September 2015, says there are still 56.2m of them (so 33.8m fewer).

In that period,
•the number of US iPhone users has grown from 59.0m to 84.3m (up 25.3m);
• the number of Android users has grown from 74.8m to 98.8m (up 24m).

There’s hardly a dramatic difference in growth between Android and the iPhone (contrary to what Forrester expected). You wonder where the other net users came from besides featurephones? The fall in BlackBerry users (5.8m to 2.3m). In the same period, Windows Phone users barely grew (4.6m to 5.5m). And there are 12m extra featurephone users in September 2015 compared to August 2013 making up the gap.

As for Windows Phone: if Ericsson’s numbers say it’s losing users, the obvious question is: how did it get to 80m (or so) users in the first place? The easy answer: Ericsson’s diagrams don’t show the pipeline bringing users into Windows Phone from featurephones – usually via the Lumia 5xx low-end range.

The eternal puzzle of iPhone growth

Even allowing for that, it’s notable that the ComScore data says that in the US iPhone users have grown more (both in percentage and sheer numbers) than Android users. Sure, home distortions and all that. But why is that the case in the other mature markets too? Why is iPhone ownership growing in other places, and why don’t they leave?

It’s this last point which befuddles and almost infuriates people. Why on earth, they say, do people buy iPhones, which only have a dual-core CPU with 2GB of RAM running at 1.8GHz and without an SD card slot, when for less money they can get an octacore phone running at 2.6GHz with 4GB of RAM, an SD card slot, removable battery and a QuadHD screen? You can hear the puzzlement in comments from people who can read a spec list, yet can’t see why the inertial scroll on the iPhone is a more pleasing experience than the rolling velcro on even top-end Android phones. (I keep going and checking the scrolling on each new Android phone. Still isn’t smooth. Clearly 2012’s Project Butter still needs to be supplanted by Project Ghee.)

There’s more than that, though. I don’t think anyone buys an iPhone by accident. I don’t think people walk into a store not intending to buy an iPhone and then find themselves surprised to be holding one as they walk out.

Whereas choosing between Android phones can be like a beauty contest of clones. You put various models of Samsung phone against LG phones against the slightly harder edges of the Sony against the iPhone-alikeness of the HTC models, and you try to pick. How do you choose? Probably on some subtle mixture of the price tag, tickboxes and comparative sizes of numbers on the spec list and.. that’s probably about it.

You can argue (and oh my giddy aunt people do) about why people buy iPhones. I’d say there’s clearly a perception among those who do that they’re getting something premium. The price tag alone suggests that.

That isn’t enough however to keep people on a platform if the experience didn’t also work for them. Do some people migrate from Android to iPhone, and then migrate back? Undoubtedly. But the data suggests most who make the shift don’t.

Is your argument that people get “locked in to the Apple ecosystem”? Perhaps. But it’s not just on iOS, as this comment from an article about Android Wear demonstrates:

Comment on Android Wear

Note the nose-spiting-face nature of the first one..

On that basis, people should be just as reluctant to move to iOS as away from it. Again, the evidence disagrees.

I think there’s a frustration factor driving some movement too; I watched the friend of a relative struggle to get the maps on her Sony phone work recently. First to find the apps, then to find the maps app, then to get any sensible input, then to get sensible output. (Since you ask, she’s one of the country’s leading barristers.)

I couldn’t help but wonder if she would have found it simpler to have a Maps icon front and centre. Apple’s reputation for simplicity is actually a selling point for such users, even if it isn’t for the gigahertz-SD-RAM-removable battery crowd.

Feeling it

Conveniently, just as I was writing this piece, Ben Thompson wrote a piece on Stratechery about “Selling feelings“, with this notable point:

how silly must you be to carry a $5,000 handbag with far less functionality than another a fraction of the price, or wear a $10,000 watch or $200 necktie? What about flying first class or staying in a five-star hotel — you can’t take either with you! It’s completely irrational.

Or, rather, it’s irrational if you only look at features. The entire point is how these purchases make you feel, and it’s that feeling, whether it be an appreciation for craftsmanship, status, or simply being pampered, that provides the sort of differentiation that makes all of these products profitable. One could argue that an insistence on limiting the calculation of value to items that are permanent, physical, and easily listed on a spreadsheet is the real irrationality.

There’s no shortage of that latter group who’ll tell you that the iPhone is rubbish. Meanwhile, continuing evidence from a growing number of studies says that over time, the iPhone base continues to grow. The question is, once the swamp of featurephone users is drained, what happens over the longer term?

7 thoughts on “Android, iOS and Ericsson’s new leaky bucket meet the featurephone swamp

  1. I’m not sure if I understand the spreadsheet. If you have a 4-month ‘after’ period and an 8-month ‘before’ period, shouldn’t months 13, 14, 15 and 16 be ‘afters’, assuming a new iPhone every year?

    • Yes, in a normal year they would be. I extended the “before” periods so that rather than having a 4-month “after” you could start at month 2, and have a 3-month “after” (tot up the numbers in month 13 compared to 2); or a 2-month “after” (start at month 3, go to 14); or a 1-month “after” (start at 4, go to 15). Or just a year when there isn’t an “after”, starting at 5 and going to 16.

      • That makes perfect sense. Thanks Charles.

        I am also intrigued by Ericsson’s assessment of the switching rates. If I have added them up right (and allowing for a 4/8 month after/before split), 31.2% of iPhone users change phone in a year, as against 26.16% of Android and 34% of Microsoft. That rate of change would suggest that on average people keep their phones for longer than the two years I thought was the industry norm.

      • I think in mature markets the suggestion is that phone replacement cycles are lengthening. It’s very variable – 15 months or even less in China (until recently), 24 months or more in the US and some European countries.

  2. I am in the Android world mobile-phone wise, but use an iPad (less and less), a macbook pro and a chromebook. I use google products across all devices without issue. You can’t do the same with Apple Movies, notes, iTunes (without an Apple Music subscription) or iPhoto. Your article uses a screenshot of an interchange between two random people lamenting how they might be stuck in Google’s ecosystem but this just doesn’t ring true when you look at Google’s cross-platform approach. And for me, that’s the number one reason why I won’t move my mobile phone to Apple, though I know I’m not representative of the masses, but certainly more so than your chosen example.

    • If you can use Google products “across all devices without issue” then surely your phone platform doesn’t matter – you could use them all (including Google Music) on the iPhone. In which case you could choose the hardware simply on the basis of “what’s the best hardware experience for me?” Or, of course, on price or specs or any other basis.

      But “I couldn’t use Apple’s apps on an Android, so therefore I’m not going to use an iPhone” isn’t quite logical if you’re all-in on Google, because as you say it’s cross-platform.

  3. Pingback: Start up: AI for your app, quantum computing works?, Yahoo’s future, Watch watch, and more | The Overspill: when there's more that I want to say

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