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How sticky is Android?

There is an assumption floating around the debates in this and other forums that the “battle” between mobile platforms is a land grab. The unspoken implication of this assumption is that once a user is captured she is permanently locked into the chosen platform never to move to another again as long as she lives.

For example @dutchtender remarked:

many people’s first smart phone will be android. android can take them “cradle to grave.” android will be there with a higher end solutions when they can afford it

This is a strong but untested claim. It may be true but we owe it a bit of thought.

A long time ago I tried to model platform growth is by using a version of Metcalfe’s law. I suggested that the value of a network is proportional to n log (n) where n is number of nodes in that network[1]. This was somewhat based on common sense as it measures the possible links between n nodes with degradation due to the limits of social graphs.

The value the network creates is what developers as well as all the other participants in the ecosystem are able to tap into. The platform vendor gets to capture a share as well of course. As the value grows it tends to create network effects or a self-reinforcing cycle.

What I’m saying then is that we can treat a platform as a network, where each node is linked to another node by the commonality of experience.

The proxy of the model was Windows. Twenty years ago, having Windows meant that you could exchange files with other Windows users simulating a sort of network protocol. You could also ask your peer group for help and get software tips and new consumption ideas. So the more people used Windows the more likely it was that you also had to use it. Avoiding Windows limited your ability to be part of productive society (this is no longer true by the way, which is one reason Microsoft is in trouble).

If we fast forward to the mobile post-PC world, when it comes to platforms the shared experience is that of apps. People can communicate their app experiences and their usage better if they have the same platform. They can also learn from each other how to better use the products and how to solve problems. The more people that use a mobile platform, them more value it generates for platform participants.

The other factor determining value is that a platform also creates sunk costs. Usually called “investments” by users these are costs that are incurred and have a potential for future value. This means that the apps purchased and time spent learning and adjusting to the platform are sunk costs which users are reluctant to abandon. (Notwithstanding the fact that as sunk, these costs should be ignored when comparing the value of another platform,–psychology is what keeps users loyal even if it’s not in their best interest.) This “sunk” factor of value is not as powerful as the sharing of experiences value since it does not scale with the number of users. That cost is a constant multiplier on top of the n log (n).

So the overall “value” of a platform is K n log(n). Where K is the stickiness of sunk costs.

Can this be stated plainly without the math?

When you compare two platforms you have to ask how contiguous users (n) grows and how stickiness (K) grows. The issue with fragmentation is that it actually cuts n. Many people won’t be able to share experiences if their devices don’t work the same way. Same with geographic density of a platform. If, as was the case with Symbian, there are few segments that became saturated with the platform then n is reduced.

The issue with a lack of paid or compelling apps is that it cuts stickiness, so that you don’t have any sunk costs. Similarly the presence of ported or common apps means that K is reduced for any single platform. Nokia’s Symbian has a serious problem with both consistency and with commonality of experience. RIMM depends too much on the commonality of messaging which is quickly becoming a commodity due to portability of the experience.

So in the end it’s not just about how big the user base n is (which is the only thing that is measurable). It’s how contiguous n is and how compelling the content.

This is too sketchy a model to be practically applied but it offers a thought experiment: does any given platform have

  • A large, contiguous user base with strong concentrations of users in the same demographic or psychographic segments?
  • A significant set of unique content (apps) which require costs from the user (in terms of data, time or cash)

It’s not a clear cut case in my mind that Android benefits from these as much as iOS does. If that’s the case, users are more likely to be moving on a one-way street between these two: from Android to iOS and not vice versa. The same thought experiment can be engaged in between any two platform contenders.

[1] Metcalfe’s law is actually an n*n growth curve but recent research indicates that social networks scale in value as n log (n).