Toward a More Informed Discussion on Android

by Ben Bajarin   |   December 10th, 2012

There are a lot of things that bother me about the discussion among the pundits related to Android. John Kirk has done a great job looking at the business issues around Android from a business perspective so I am not going to rehash those points. You can read them all eloquently stated by John in his series which you can find here. Rather, I would like a take a deeper look at the platform truths related to Android.

Who Cares About Market Share?

The first thing I want to talk about briefly is the pundits and the media’s obsession with market share. There was a time when market share mattered and it was during the maturity cycle of the PC industry. The reason we cared about market share, and in this case Microsoft’s, was because the market was maturing and thus needed a standard to center around, build hardware around, build software and accessories around, etc., in order to mature it. Now that the market is mature, market share is less important than people think to the overall industry. Primarily because there will no longer be on single OS dominating the landscape but rather there will be many which together equal the whole pie. Many ecosystems and platforms can and will continue to co-exist. How many? As many as developers will support and write software for.

As long as developers can make a healthy living supporting a specific platform, no matter how large—or small—its market share, that platform will exist.

From what I can gather there are two groups to whom any bit of market share discussion is relevant to, developers and those who wish the demise of competing platforms. It is unwise and uninformed to be in the latter.

What Do We Mean When We Say Android?

This is the core of the issue that I think gets overlooked. Android is in no way shape or form the same as OS X, Windows, iOS, Windows Phone, or RIM’s Blackberry OS. When we speak of those operating systems we are speaking of a unified platform controlled by one company whose platform share represents the total addressable market, via single SDK, for developers. Should a developer want to develop for any of those platforms, all they need do is get the SDK for that single platform. Android, however, is an entirely different beast.

Because Android is open source, all the term Android refers to is the AOSP, or Android Open Source Project. Anyone can take this core code and create their own custom operating system using Android as the core. Google created and manages the AOSP but also has their own version of Android. Amazon does this and has their own version of Android. Barnes and Noble does this and has their own version of Android. I would not be shocked if new entrants as well take the Android platform and make it their own for their own needs as well. Android is not actually a platform, it is an enabling technology that allows companies to create platforms. A commenter gave the smart analogy a few weeks ago that Android is more like a BIOS.

All of this is fine and good and to be honest I am glad Android exists for the reasons that great companies can take it and build exciting hardware. Whether or not this is why Google released Android into the world is an entirely different discussion. What’s more to the point is that when we talk or read about Android market share, we need to understand that number only applies to Android as it relates to an underlying open source framework.

The reality is Android’s market share is broken up into the many different versions that exist, all with separate developer SDKs. So If I was to actually break the market into the computing platforms which exist for developers the list would look like this:

Proprietary Platforms
- OS X
- iOS
- Windows
- Windows Phone
- Blackberry OS

AOSP Platforms
- Amazon Kindle Fire platform
- Barnes and Noble Nook HD platform
- Google Android Platform
- Other

All of those platforms I just mentioned (including other which I will address in a moment) have their own app stores and/or their own developer SDKs.

So what is other? Other represents the incredibly complex and nuanced regions like China, India, and other emerging markets. These regions have a rapidly increasing number of Android devices in them, yet they have no unified app stores and no benefit to any of the players mentioned above with AOSP versions of Android, including Google.

Now when it comes to smartphones, for now it’s Google’s version of Android vs. other, since neither Amazon or Barnes and Noble make a phone—yet. So to dive deeper into a recent market share estimation that Android has 75% of the smartphone market, means we need to understand what percent of that is Google Android vs. other. Which would be a whole lot easier if Google would tell us, which they won’t.

The fascinating part of this is related to China. Consider this a first in a two part series, where in the next one, which will come next week, I will take a deeper dive to the complex environment that is the China market for smartphones and specifically what is happening with Android in China. China is the wild wild West at the moment and a fascinating market to study. Until then, however, I leave you with a few articles.

The first is by Ben Evans and his recent Forbes column entitled:
Android, China and Addressable Markets

The second is an article in TechAsia entitled:
Chinese apps are bypassing Google’s Play Store, giving Android apps straight to Users

I highly recommend those articles as a primer for what I will dive into next week.

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Full Bio
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1573495479 Rene Stein

    A good way to divide the devices is to see who they provide income for in their default configuration. That’s which company the device belongs to.

  • http://twitter.com/M_Gauche James King

    Thanks Ben, the topic of Android definitely needs to be approached with some perspective. I think the media has done a lot to further Android’s fortune and misinform consumers. I agree with you that Android is treated as a unified platform when nothing could be further from the truth. Also, very little is done to put Android’s marketshare into perspective; most people do not understand that marketshare isn’t the same as total installed base and, from that perspective, Android smartphone share is not that much greater than iPhone. I think it is more sensible and truthful to break out TRUE Android share in the manner you have so that people can see that there are many different Android experiences, not just one, and that there are real buying decisions involved.

  • FalKirk

    “I highly recommend those articles as a primer for what I will dive into next week.”

    Done! Can’t wait to read next week’s article.

  • mhikl

    Ben, you guys at T•p stop a person in his tracks. So much well thought out analyses, interlinking to pertinent past T•p articles; relevance beyond the moment. Rarely are the articles quick easy reads but rather become studies that must be meditated upon or savoured with points copied and notes added. I am sure you guys make errors and maybe one of these days I shall recognize one. :-)