If You’re Obsessed With ‘Winning,’ You Don’t Understand the Mobile Market

The mobile platform wars are a fascinating topic. Why dumb them down by obsessively trying to pick a winner?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Getty Images / George Frey

A Verizon Wireless store manager brandishes an iPhone and a Droid in 2009

Last month, I wrote about the state of competition between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Mostly, I rounded up scads of stats — market share, profits, app-store size and a lot more. I noted that lots of folks like to declare that either iOS or Android is winning, but that my conclusion was that iOS was winning the financial war, and Android was winning the market-share war. Which, come to think of it, was less a conclusion than a mere statement of obvious fact.

Over at Techpinions, John Kirk has tackled the same topic. Unlike me, he did a lot of sophisticated analysis, and devised a formula — ratio of profits to market share — to benchmark who’s winning. It shows Apple with a sizable lead at 3.12 percent, Samsung doing well for itself at 1.30 percent and the rest of the Android pack straggling behind at .41 percent.

Kirk’s piece is smart, meticulous and a great read. But by taking the question of “who’s winning?” seriously — and responding to pundits who contend that Android is “winning” over iOS — it also shows how inherently dopey the whole debate is. Grinding discussion of the mobile platform wars down to a debate over who’s “winning” and who’s “losing” dumbs down an otherwise fascinating topic.

Here’s why:

How can we talk about who’s “winning” if we can’t agree on what “winning” is? In case you hadn’t noticed, the gadget business isn’t all that much like Formula One racing, Yahtzee or curling. There are no rules; there aren’t any well-defined opposing forces; the battle has no beginning or end. And zero-sum thinking — the assumption that one company doing well hurts another, or that all companies are even playing the same game — is often out of whack with reality.

I’m not saying that it’s not possible (especially in retrospect) to declare winners and losers. Excel beat 1-2-3, Blu-ray beat HD-DVD, LTE beat WiMax. But when two platforms are flourishing, as iOS and Android are in their own ways, proclaiming that one is beating the other is a little like saying the Boston Pops is killing the New York Philharmonic.

“Android is winning” is a prediction, not a declaration. With Apple’s share of smartphone profits at 70% most Android-centric phone makers struggling to eke out a profit at all, it’s impossible to make a convincing case that iOS is “losing” and Android is “winning” right now. Instead, the case for Android is based on the theory that its booming market share will do what Windows’ booming market share once did — give it a near-monopoly on the mindshare of developers and consumers, thereby sucking all the wind out of Apple’s competing ecosystem.

It could happen. But the thing is, this prediction has existed since at least early 2010, which was when it became clear that Android was catching on in a big way. (Here’s Business Insider’s Henry Blodget telling Apple to “wake up” in January of that year.) There’s plenty of evidence that consumers and developers have grown increasingly enthusiastic about Android in a manner that benefits both. What’s missing so far are metrics which would indicate that Android has surpassed iOS in this respect, or that Apple and iOS users are suffering as a result of Android’s success.

I cheerfully admit to having a bias here: it would please me if it turned out that the mobile-platform wars continued on indefinitely, with both iOS and Android — and Windows Phone, and BlackBerry 10, and operating systems yet to be invented — remaining viable, evolving and exciting. When there are multiple attractive options, and nobody feels forced into using a product unwillingly, consumers win. That’s the state of affairs right now. And isn’t it the only victory that really matters?