YOU’VE SEEN THE REPORTS a thousand times. Samsung is now ahead of Apple in the smartphone wars, the media says.
I’m looking at BBC news while writing this, and there we have the same story, freshly posted: “Apple accounted for 18.8 per cent of all sales and Samsung 29.7 per cent.”
The Daily Mail has the exact same story from a different angle: Android, the system used by Samsung, has “crushed” Apple, with 79 per cent of the market against Apple’s 13 per cent, their report says.
It all seems cut and dried. The facts are stated clearly, and so are the statistics to back them up. Samsung with its Android system has beaten Apple with its iOS system into a corner.
Or has it?
White coat time!
To make a scientific review of this subject, the first thing we do is check the parameters. This is to ensure that false assumptions have not been made.
First, let’s look at iPhone versus Android. Are we comparing apples with oranges? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that one.)
Almost immediately, alarm bells go off. The iPhone is a single product, a standard, palm-sized smartphone, and they are launched in a linear fashion — model one is replaced by model two which is replaced by model three and so on.
Android is something completely different: an operating system that can be loaded on an infinite number of different phones from different companies.
I could start manufacturing an Android phone at my desk today. From a scientific point of view, it makes no sense to directly compare the two.
The second will inevitably be bigger in numbers than the first, almost from day one. You’re comparing one brand of clothes with the entire clothing industry.
Some media writers realize this, and instead compare numbers of users of the Apple iPhone’s operating system (called iOS) with the number of users of Samsung’s operating system (called Android).
This produces a fair result, apples against apples, right?
Take a closer look and we find that these comparisons are comparing a paid-for product designed for exclusivity with a free open access product designed for mass usage.
It’s like comparing popularity in your town of the Financial Times against the local free newspaper. They are aimed at largely separate audiences. To say one has “crushed” the other is as logical as saying that Gordon Ramsay’s fine dining restaurants have been “crushed” by McDonald’s, because more people use the latter. Who would say that?
Businesses do not work like this. It’s not about numbers of users. It’s about the profit function per customer.
An empirical analysis of the two products reveals that iOS and Android are quite different.
The iPhone-iOS system is a single item that grows in an evolutionary way by adaption and exaption. The generations move slowly, and show a linear progression. Each iPhone leads to the next. In general, each generation builds on the advances of the previous one—a tree trunk with few side branches. In evolutionary biology terms, the iOS is the genetic module and the iPhone is the carrier.
The Android is quite different. It’s an item carried by unrelated bodies, more like a vine. It has evolved to be adaptable and customizable. In evolutionary biology terms, it would show up as a large family of vines covering a forest.
Again, it is inevitable that the Android numbers will be bigger. To change metaphor slightly, Android is the default fauna of the jungle. Apple is the lion, sitting on a rock by itself.
What about if we review the argument in the simplest possible terms, sales of physical iPhones against sales of physical Samsung phones?
That surely must be a fair comparison?
Again, it seems to be from a distance. But when we wear our white coats and look at the parameters, we see a different story. The iPhone is fundamentally one product which grows in a linear progression.
Samsung produces a huge range of products. There are small phones, large ones, and in-betweenie ones. There are ones with pens and ones without. There are ones with different shapes, different functions, different specialisms.
The media is actually comparing the iPhone division’s single flagship product with the full range of Samsung products. The second number is bigger in number terms. It has to be.
So how can we get a fairer, more scientific view of how the participants are doing in the smartphone wars?
We can compare Apple’s top phone with Samsung’s top phone.
What do we find?
At the time of starting this research (in 2013 when the market leaders were the iPhone 5 and Galaxy 4), Apple was significantly ahead. Looking at the figures at that time, iPhone 5 had close to 50 million sales, against some 39 million for Samsung. That’s not strictly scientific, since the products had different launch dates.
Another way to measure the relative success is to look at the market capitalization of the firms, and what do we find? Yes, Apple is far ahead.
Perhaps the ultimate statistic, given that we are talking about businesses, is the profit figure for the two companies. In March this year (2014), the New York Times reported that in the most recent holiday season, “analysts’ estimates put Apple’s share of smartphone profits at between 76 percent and 87 percent”.
Android’s got the numbers. But Apple’s got the money.
Of course, the figures are changing on a daily basis, and by the time you read this, every figure in it will have changed.
But one thing is clear. The headlines used by virtually all the media to present a picture which is not only wrong, but often the opposite of the truth.
And that’s why we all benefit from scientific thinking.