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"iPhone dead in water," claims Business Insider

Henry Blodget at Business Insider has posted about Comscore's latest smartphone market share survey: "Apple's share increased slightly, but is dead in the water and has now fallen way behind Android. Android now has a third of the US market (33%). RIM's share has plummeted to 29%. Apple is holding at 25%." The Android market share figure for the quarter before, Sep-Nov 2010, was just 25%, so it certainly shows a sharp increase.

Blodget's article is incredibly linkbaity from start to end, but the underlying Comscore data is interesting nevertheless. Is it true that "Apple fans should be scared to death," as Blodget surmises, though? His contention is that, with a higher (and growing) market share, app developers will soon come to prefer Android as their main platform and iOS will gradually whither away as it becomes more and more of an afterthought. Although not impossible, I'd suggest this is quite unlikely and (even if Blodget is correct and the mobile market will converge onto a single OS) it is far, far too soon to say which OS that will be.

Firstly, consider that despite Android's rising market share Apple owned 83% of all mobile transactions in 2010. This has led many to suggest that Android users simply don't like paying for apps, which might be true; there are many mid-range Android handsets marketed at cost-conscious consumers, whereas the iPhone is a resolutely expensive device. Google, as an advertising-driven firm, would also perhaps prefer to have an app store full of free apps that show its adverts, rather than one full of premium apps.

However, note that until September only nine countries world-wide could buy Android apps, so that's a heavily skewed figure. A similar study taken today would reveal more transactional revenue for Android. Nevertheless, I cannot name a single high-profile app developer who chose to adopt an Android-first strategy for their mobile device; until there's at least a few, I think it's fair to suggest the Android store still has some growing up to do. To quote just one example, prominent iPhone developer Marco Arment, of Instapaper, is certainly very negative about Android-first development.

Secondly, Blodget is magically using the US-only Comscore data to determine planet-wide trends, something which never fails to irritate me as a Brit. He's lucked out though, and world-wide, the picture isn't very different; there's a lot of Android in the emerging markets because it's a lot cheaper. But again, these are not particularly lucrative targets for developers because people choosing cheaper handsets are generally less willing to spend money on apps.

Thirdly, and most powerfully, is that Comscore's figures are measurements only of smartphone market share and therefore disregard the iPod touch and the iPad (but do manage to count almost all the Android devices, barring the small number of Galaxy Tabs and Xooms sold). They claim Apple took 25.2% of 69.5 million smartphones -- so 17 million iPhones. But for about every three iPhones, Apple sells an iPod touch, so we can add roughly another 6 million of those. There'll have been a few million iPads sold in the US during this period, too.

If we take these into account, iOS devices almost certainly outsold Android devices. Is this a valid measure of "smartphone market share?" No. Is it the real metric that app devs would be considering when choosing a platform to target? Absolutely yes.

Still, though, there's no denying that Android sales have some growing momentum behind them. So does the future look gloomy for Apple? Let's not get carried away. Apple may not make most of the phones, but it does make most of the money and that's not to be sniffed at. Apple is in an entrenched position; the users it already has have powerful ties to its platform (once your media and your app investment are locked up inside iTunes, you have a strong reason not to move away) and are often enthusiastic advocates to their friends and family.

The figures Blodget cites show that Android market share is not growing at the expense of iOS's -- but rather at the expense of other smartphone manufactures and (most crucially) at the expensive of non-smartphones. I suspect Android is, for the most part, hoovering up the customers Apple did not want (the price-concious) or could never win (the people with philosophical disagreements with Apple, those who despise iTunes and so forth).

But the biggest problem with Blodget's prognostication is that smartphone penetration is still only somewhere between 10 and 20 percent in most markets! There's a long way to go before we can truly call the smartphone a mass-market device, and until we get there, it's still all to play for. Calling the fight now is as premature as calling the results of Ali vs Frazier based on the first few feints of round one.

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