Commentary

Debunking The Android Handicap

On one level, Google’s initial Android strategy of building a broad base of users by making its OS free and open to manufacturers was a staggering success. This classic reach-play glommed 80% of the market, even as Apple’s OS seemed to get all the glory.

The downside was that Android users and handsets represented such a broad range of people and price points, the overall metrics on user engagement were diluted. App use, Web use, interactivity, conversion, monetization -- all seemed to be coming mainly from iPhones and iPads. At times pundits wondered what all of those hundreds of million of Android owners were doing with their phones, anyway?

I have always been uneasy reporting these sorts of metrics because a fundamental difference between the operating systems was not being considered. iPhones were premium devices sought out specifically for their apps, while many, many Android devices were built and pitched as entry-level smartphones -- probably not bought because of data channel functionality.

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Mobile marketing platform and analytics firm Localytics argues that in fact many of the myths surrounding Android’s supposed lack of engagement not only evaporate when you isolate higher-end devices from the rest, but they turn the tables on the legendary engagement leadership of iPhones. When Localytics considered just the activity levels it was seeing on models like the Galaxy S5, Moto X, HTC One,LG G3 and Sony Experia X3, among others, monthly app launches for this group reached 21.6, compared to iPhone 6 and 6 Plus users at 14.3. Premium Android owners were opening apps at a 44% higher rate than even the highest-end iPhone owners.  

Localytics acknowledges that Android actually enjoys some advantages in encouraging app interactivity, including the ability to launch and use multiple apps simultaneously, and automatically enabling push notifications.

Another myth that has dogged Android is its fragmentation -- the argument that so many devices at so many levels of sophistication have created a universe where OS upgrades are inconsistent and sometimes impossible across a large swath of devices. Localytics says that this factor has changed considerably, with metrics showing that 90% of Android devices are now running either the  KitKat OS (59%) or its predecessor Jelly Bean (31%). Granted, the latest Lollipop release is on fewer than 5% of devices in its very sluggish rollout.

Still, Android should represent a much more unified target for developers now than it has in the last three years. Meanwhile, iOS’s troubled rollout of version 8 has left Apple with 71% on the latest OS, still far superior to Android, but low by Apple standards.

Targeting by device rather than by OS appears to be am old and basic mobile marketing approach that still holds true. Of course, there is one thing that both Android and iOS share: an abysmal app discovery experience that has created this inflated and creatively uninteresting app ad economy.

For all of our talk about the torrent of cash and attention flowing into mobile marketing, the actual mobile ad experience now is not a lot better than it was eight or nine years ago. Back then, the overwhelming majority of mobile ad spend was selling other mobile content, back then the shady and frustrating “subscription” and “premium SMS. How much better is a Facebook feed brimming with Clash of Clans ads?

In James M. Cain’s brilliant, hard-boiled classic of 1934, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” one of the characters snipes, “Whole goddamn country lives selling hot dogs to each other.” Cain might as well have been writing about a mobile ad ecosystem. 

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