American exceptionalism

The second quarter showed continuing growth for Android with 19 points of share growth from a year ago. Only Windows Phone showed a gain y/y in share up 1.6 points to about 3%. In the same time, Bada lost half a point, iOS lost 2.1 points, RIM lost 7.2, Symbian 11.4.

The result is shown in the graph below:

I also show a “before-and-after” pair of pie charts which show the difference in smartphone platform market share from the same quarter three years ago. Android went from 3% share to 67% while Symbian went from 41% to 4% and RIM went from 19% to 5%. iOS increased its share from 13% to 17%.

If this trend continues Android could reach 50% of all phones sold in a few years. That’s a run rate of 200 million per quarter. And it’s likely that 100 million of those will be shipped by Chinese vendors.

However, looking at the global picture can also miss some important trends in local markets. Had one looked at the global smartphone business in 2005, the conclusion would have been that Symbian would be the dominant platform in perpetuity.

What affected the global market was a change in the US: the launch of iOS and thereafter of Android. The US, a smartphone backwater until then, became the most vibrant market and today it’s the most penetrated and has the highest ratio of smart to non-smart of any of the major regions.

The curious thing about this vast market is that it’s still not truly open. There are technology and political reasons why some platforms are permitted to sell in one region or not. The iPhone is not available on either the largest Chinese operator or on the largest Japanese one. It’s largely absent from India because of distribution (i.e. subsidy) and much of South America. Even in the US, the iPhone is still, after five years, not available on one of the top four operators and has only reached another less than a year ago.

What intrigues me is what would the market look like if distribution were not an issue. What if there was equal choice to all buyers. We can’t test this question directly but we can ask. But there is some pattern we can look at in the US data. Thanks to recent revelations at the Samsung vs. Apple trial we can see the effect of increasing distribution in the US.

The data on smartphone market share by carrier can be blended with data from carriers about iPhone activations (which are a proxy for sales, see note below) to give a more precise figure of market share in markets where iPhone participates.

For example, when the iPhone was only available on AT&T, one could measure iPhone market share vs. the global smartphone market, or the US smartphone market or within AT&T alone. Some assumed that the AT&T share would be reduced once the product would become available on Verizon or other US carriers. However there was no appreciable drop. Share in Q4 2010 was 63% at AT&T and it was 63% a year later after the iPhone was available for four quarters at Verizon.

So the share of iPhone within those operators which carry it tells a story independent of distribution.

The following graph shows the share of the iPhone vs. Samsung in the market defined by its availability. (I.e. the volumes of smartphones sold by AT&T throughout the time period, Verizon Q1 2011 to end and Sprint in Q4 ’11).

The share of iPhone thus defined shows a slight decline but it’s an overall number that is remarkably resilient as distribution increases and is remarkably high overall. Note that globally, the iPhone gets only about 17% share of smartphones–a value that has not varied greatly since mid 2009.

So at least in the US, on carriers where it’s available, the iPhone is holding on to a significant share. In a global market it’s expanding distribution but not yet covering the world. As a consequence it’s keeping up with overall market growth and staying between 17% and 20% share.

The big question is what will happen if and when its availability matches that of Android in terms of points of sale. Or even that of BlackBerry or Symbian. Is America a different market from the rest of the world? It was different in being isolated while Symbian roamed globally. It was different in being a launch platform for BlackBerry and then iOS and then Android. But now that iPhone is beginning to be widely available there, will it be exceptional in how it rewards Apple?


  1. Activations data can be seen next to Apple’s testimony of US sales in the following graph. Note that more phones were sold by Apple than were activated in total of the life of the product. 86 million sold and 80 million activated. This implies that an analysis based on activations undercounts the iPhone.