Android’s Market Share Is Literally A Joke

on May 23, 2013
Reading Time: 9 minutes

This is the first of three articles looking at how we measure – and mis-measure – who is “winning” in the mobile sector. Article one focuses on market share and was inspired by an article written by Bill Shamblin, entitled: “Chasing Smartphone Market Share Is A Chump’s Game.” Article two will focus on the proper way to measure or “score” mobile hardware manufacturing, mobile advertising and the “razors-and-blades” content models. Article three will focus on the role that market share plays in the network effect and will examine the proper way to measure or “score” how well a platform is doing.

The Joke

Have you heard this one?

Two farmers bought a truckload of watermelons, paying five dollars apiece for them. Then they drove to the market and sold all their watermelons for four dollars each. After counting their money at the end of the day, they realized that they’d ended up with less money than they’d started with.

“See!” said the one farmer to the other. “I told you we shoulda got a bigger truck.”

Or how about this one?

Android is winning because they got a bigger truck.

The Joke Is On Us

Both “jokes” are based upon the old saw that one can lose money on every sale but make it up in volume. Unfortunately, the joke is on us because this is exactly the kind of nonsensical analysis that is being doled out by tech pundits and lapped up by the press and investors. You think I’m exaggerating? Take a gander at some of these recent tech headlines:

Android is crushing Apple and Microsoft in the mobile device market
Android looks like it’s winning
CHART OF THE DAY: The iPhone’s Market Share Is Dead In The Water
Despite its upmarket history, Apple needs to compete on price
Gartner: Apple falls below 20% in smartphone market share
Harvard Liquidates Apple Stake After IPhone Sales Lose Steam
How Apple Is Losing Mobile
IDC: Apple’s share of worldwide tablet market drops under 40%
iPhone growth stalls as Android continues to nip away at Apple’s market share
iPhone Market Share Stuck At 18%
Nearly 75% Of All Smartphones Sold In Q1 Were Android
Sharp to seek Samsung edge for survival as Apple sales lose steam
Why Android Is Winning The Tablet Wars

I could link to a dozen more headlines just like them. These headlines – or their underlying articles – all have two things in common:

1) They contend that Android is winning and Apple’s iPhone is in deep, deep trouble; and
2) They point to market share as the sole or primary basis for their conclusion.

TechCrunch sums up the thoughts of many this way:

“The latest numbers are in: Android is on top, followed by iOS in a distant second. There is no denying Android’s dominance anymore. There is no way even the most rabid Apple fanboy can deny that iOS is in second place now. Android is winning.”

ReadWrite takes it one, final step further, stating:

“The Mobile Battle Is Over – And Google Won.”

In other words, pundits think that Android has won because they “have a bigger truck” (i.e. more market share) – regardless of how much – or how little – profit Android manufacturers make. Android, the pundits opine without a hint of irony, is not making much, if any, money but that’s okay because they’re making it up in volume.

But is that really how market share works? Can you tell how well a company or an operating system is doing solely by measuring its market share?

No, of course not.

Quiz #1: Market Share Alone

Question: Company A has 25% market share. Company Z has 75% market share. Which company is doing better?

Answer: With market share alone, there’s simply no way to know or tell. Company A might be bringing in all the profits and company Z might be going bankrupt.

The Wrong Way To Calculate Who’s Winning

(T)he primary problem with using market share as a measure of business health is it provides no insight into the profitability of the product being sold. ~ Bill Shamblin

Scoring by market share alone and ignoring profit is like saying that a baseball team won because it had more hits when the other team scored more runs. Scoring by market share alone and ignoring profit is like saying that a football team won because it gained more yards when the other team scored more points. Scoring by market share alone and ignoring profit is like saying that a hockey team won because it had more shots on goal when the other team had more goals.

Market share without context is not only useless, it is worse than useless because it is likely to be misinterpreted.

First, market share without context assumes that each percentage of market share is equal to another – that every Android activation is equal to an iOS sale. Nothing could be further from the truth. You can’t simply total up market share and determine a winner any more than you could count up coins or poker chips without knowing the underlying value of those coins or chips. A penny does not have the same value as a quarter and only a small child would rather have more coins than fewer coins but more money.

Second, market share without context implies that market share is a zero sum game – that market share gains for one always result in a loss to another. But in a rapidly growing market, a company can actually LOSE market share yet have both positive unit sales and profit growth. Not growing as fast as another company is not nearly the same as “losing”, especially if the growth is coming in a more desirable portion of the market.

For example, despite a decline in Q1 market share, iPhone sales actually increased based on year over year comparisons. (iPhone sales were not declining,they were growing slower than the overall market.)

The same was true of tablet sales. Last quarter, Apple LOST tablet market share, but because the entire market was rapidly growing, they GREW unit sales by 65%.


Source: Apple 2.0, “Pie charts of the day: Tablet sales grew 140% year over year”

The “Fair-Share” Way To Calculate Who’s “Winning”

What matters is not only market share and not only profit share but the ratio between them. This is called Fair share profit analysis. Fair Share Profit Analysis contends that 1 point of market share should deliver 1 or more points of profit share.

Less than a 1-to-1 ratio of profit share to market share demonstrates that a company is buying market share; that the company has not been able to differentiate its product in the market and is likely competing primarily on price.

More than a 1-to-1 ratio of profit share to market share demonstrates a company’s ability to differentiate its products, provide more value than its competitors, command higher prices, charge a premium and enjoy pricing power.

Quiz #2: Market Share or Profit Share

Question: Company A has 25% market share and 75% profit share. Company Z has 75% market share and 25% profit share. Which company is doing better?

Answer: If you said anything other than company A, then you are dumber than a doorknob. Any intelligent person would take company A’s profit share over that of company Z’s market share.

No one would be confused if Apple had 50 percent market share and 50 percent of the profits. But apparently it’s very confusing to some that Apple has only 5 percent of the market share and well over 50 percent of the profits. ~ John Gruber, The church of market share

Imagine, for example, that Apple were a hamburger chain who made more money than McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendys combined, but only sold 5% of the total hamburgers. Would anyone seriously contend that Apple was “losing” the hamburger wars?

Apparently so. For example, take this analysis from Matt Asay of ReadWrite (please!):

For those who say market share doesn’t matter, that Apple still commands most of the industry’s tablet profits, they clearly haven’t been paying attention to the smartphone market.

It turns out it’s a really big deal to maintain market share, and not simply profits. Profit share follows market share.

Profit share follows market share? Are you kidding me? Show me a business sector where profits have a 1-to-1 correlation with market share and I’ll show you the exception that proves the rule. The reason market share doesn’t necessarily correlate to profit share is because profits are made up of both market share and margins. And market share alone tells us nothing about margins, therefore market share and profit share are almost always going to be unbalanced.


Source: Asymco, Escaping PCs

Take, for example, the Apple Mac. As the pie chart above demonstrates, the Mac has 45% profit share with only 8% of the market share. That means that Apple pulls in an awesome 5.63% of the sector’s profits for each and every 1% of its market share.

Profit share always follows market share? Not hardly.

The truth is, anyone can get market share if they want it badly enough. All they need to do is sell their product at cost, give it away for free or, better yet, subsidize (pay their customers) to take the product off their hands. This is called “buying” market share, but it always comes at the cost of profits.

Pricing to gain market share simply for the sake of market share is a chump’s game. ~ Bill Shamblin

The problem is, you can “cheat” and buy market share, but you can’t do the reverse and “cheat” to buy profits. You have to EARN profits. Buying market share is a downhill race to the bottom but gaining profits is an tortuous uphill climb and it can only be made if the manufacturer is able to produce highly valued and differentiated products. The company that buys market share must inevitably go out of business or reverse its course and fight its way back up to profitability. The company with the value and the profits, on the other hand, has the advantage of holding the high ground and can choose to take market share at will.

Quiz #3: Less Market Share Can Be Better Than More

Question: Company A has 25% market share and 50% profit share. Company Z has 75% market share and 50% profit share. Which company is doing better?

Answer: Anyone with any business sense would say company A.

Company A is commanding 3 times the price of Company Z. The formula is 50% profit share divided by 25% market share (50/25 = 2). This means that for every one percent of market share, company A has two percent of the profit share. Company Z’s position is reversed. For every one percent of market share, they command only 0.5% profit share (50/75 = 0.66). Company Z would have to work three times as hard and sell 3 times as much product just to match the profits of a single sale by company A.

Grading The Contestants

Android accounts for approximately 70% of global smartphone shipments and 29% of global profits. This means that the average Android manufacturer creates just .41% of profit for each point of market share (0.29/0.70 = .414). In other words, the average Android manufacturer needs to capture 2.4 points of market share just to increase their market profit by 1%.

Such a low fair share profit index may indicate that Android manufacturers are:

— Having difficulty differentiating their product;
— Sacrificing profits in order to buy market share (the “race to the bottom”);
— Unable to reach economies of scale in the manufacturing process.

(Profit data, source: Canaccord, Market share, source: IDC)

Samsung is doing far, far better than the average Android manufacturer. Samsung’s 2013 Q1 market share was 33% and its profit share was 43%. This means that Samsung reels in 1.3% of the profits for every 1% of the market share it owns (0.43/0.33 = 1.30). Samsung, unlike all other Android manufacturers, is earning, rather than “buying”, market share.

(Profit data, source: Canaccord, Market share, source: IDC)

Apple’s iPhone 2013 Q1 market share was 18% with 57% profit share. This means that Apple’s iPhone took in a lavish 3.12% ((0.57/0.18) of all profits for each 1% percent of market share it controls.

If Android manufacturers needed to sell 2.4 phones just to gain 1% profit share, they would need to sell a staggering 7.5 units just to match the profits that Apple garnered from the sale of a single iPhone.

As Daniel Eran Dilger puts it:

“… Apple could simply have blown through much of its $13.1 billion quarterly profit to “beat” Samsung in market share, rather than allowing Samsung to do that while earning $4.8 billion less than Apple.”

Further, in 2012 Q1, Apple held 23% market share and 74% profit share. This means that each 1% of market share was equal to 3.22% (0.74/0.23) of the sector’s profit share. Apple’s market share to profit share ratio remains almost identical, which means that Apple has maintained its pricing power. Not only that, by focusing on just a few smartphone models, Apple has become the low-cost manufacturer in smartphones as well.


Source: Ben Evans, Mobile is eating the world

Take a good hard look at the chart, above, then go back and re-read the headlines I listed at the start of this article. What each and every one of those headlines is contending is that Android is winning and Apple is losing because Apple doesn’t control the green portion of the chart, above.

I mean, honest to goodness, take a look at the total units sold compared to the paltry profits obtained from those green sales. Who in their right mind would even WANT that market share?

Price Elasticity

What we’re really talking about here is the economic concept of price elasticity. “Price elasticity” seems to be way beyond the pay grade of most pundits and analysts who follow the mobile sector, but what it essentially means is that when the price of something goes down, sales almost always go up, but the rate of that sales increase depends upon the price elasticity of the product. In other words, dropping prices may increase sales but the increased sales may result in disproportionately larger or smaller profits.

Unless we truly understand the price elasticity of the iPhone, we really shouldn’t be calling for Apple to drop its iPhone prices.


It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so. – Will Rogers

Not only do the high priests of market share have it wrong, they have it exactly backwards. The company with the lower market share and the higher profits has all of the leverage. The goal is to INCREASE, not decrease, the ratio of profits to market share. Increasing market share at the cost of profits is a recipe for disaster, not a formula for success.

Apple may or may not do well in the future but right now, and contrary to popular belief, they are winning the smartphone wars and winning them handily.

3.12% Apple
1.30% Samsung
0.41% All Android

Not only is market share not the best way to evaluate the relative positions of competitors but, without context, it is one of the worst. Assuming that market share will always bring you success is like assuming that a bigger truck will always bring you bigger profits. It’s literally a joke.


Next, I’ll talk about how market share affects hardware manufacturing, advertising and the “razors-and-blades” content models. The series will conclude with a discussion of platforms and the network effect.

Read Part Two of John’s column entitled: 4 Mobile Business Models, 4 Ways to Keep Score.

Read Part Three of John’s column entitled: Google’s Android Activations Are A Lot Less Cash Cow And A Lot More Bull. And That’s OK.