GAME OF PHONES

Android’s lead over the iPhone in the US is rapidly narrowing

Obsession
Mobile Web
Obsession
Mobile Web

When Apple’s iPhone 6 and 6 Plus introduced significantly larger screens last year, it seemed an admission that Google Android handset makers—not Apple’s revered industrial design team—had figured out the ideal smartphone size. The decision seems to have paid off for Apple, particularly in its home US market, where it continues to gain market share—recently at Android’s expense.

Of the 190 million smartphone subscribers in the US during the three months ending June 30, some 44.1% had iPhones, and 51.6% had Android phones, according to comScore. While Android’s share of subscribers has remained relatively stable over the past three years, hovering roughly between 50% and 55%, Apple has gained ground. Its share in June represented an all-time high—up from the mid-30s a few years ago.

And when you consider the growing number of subscribers—not just percentages—Google’s lead of 14.3 million subscribers is its lowest since 2011.

What’s driving Apple’s success? Is this a cycle that will revert to Android when the iPhone 6S line launches this year?

While the market is large, complex, and somewhat volatile, it seems safe to say the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have been huge hits. The iPhone 6 seems to have found the sweet spot as the ideal smartphone size. And for the hardcore user—ourselves included—the iPhone 6 Plus is the best computer we’ve ever owned. On Apple’s most recent earnings call, CEO Tim Cook cited “the highest Android switcher rate that we’ve observed.”

In terms of US subscribers added since the end of last June, comScore data suggest the iPhone 6 family has well outperformed the overall smartphone market, Android, and the broader iPhone market, as many have upgraded to the newer devices.

The broader picture, however, is that the US smartphone market is starting to reach a saturation point. Smartphone penetration is now approaching 80%, according to comScore, up from 60% two years ago. So while the iPhone is now growing faster than Android, growth has slowed across the board—the land grab is mostly over.

Why does the US market matter? Android is, after all, still dominant globally. (Apple represented 14% of handsets shipped globally during the second quarter, according to IDC, an increase over the prior year.) The US is important for several reasons. For one, it’s the world’s largest economy—with some of its wealthiest consumers and early adopters. For another, it is the home market for both Apple and Google, the platform makers.

Another thing that’s clear is that a third smartphone platform—Microsoft’s Windows, for example—has almost zero chance of succeeding. Android and iPhone have emerged as the only two platforms that matter. Both have won, and the old Windows-Mac analogies—hypothesizing that Android would render Apple irrelevant—have been proven incorrect.

Many smart people predicted that the software world would have switched to “Android-first” development by now. But this has not happened. Why not? “I think the main reason is simply that the vast majority of tech people have iPhones,” venture capitalist Chris Dixon told Quartz last year. (In 2013, Dixon had predicted a likely switch to Android-first in the next “year or two.”)

Twitter’s Periscope live-video app is a good recent example of this. Yesterday, Periscope credited Android for a huge spike in user activity when it launched its Android app in May—which was several months after Periscope launched as an iPhone-only service.

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