The late smartphone adopter paradox

comScore reports that US smartphone penetration has decisively crossed over 50% in August. This should not come as a surprise as the penetration rate has been very linear.

Now that we’ve crossed this milestone, the thing to watch is the conversion rate from smartphone non-consumption to smartphone consumption.

The reason is that we don’t know what “saturation” means in smartphones. We can assume it’s at least 80% as about 80% of new phones being purchased are smartphones. What we don’t know is how much above 80% it can be. It could  be 100% if feature phones simply stop being made but we can’t be sure if there will be latent demand and how long this will last (similar to the market for black-and-white TVs after Color became commonplace).

To help keep an eye on this measure, the following graph shows the rate at which non-smart to smart conversion is happening.

It measures the addition of new (to smart) subs each week in a particular measurement period (three months ending the month shown on the x-axis). There is also a 3 period moving average shown as a line. Keep in mind that this shows net new users and therefore excludes smartphone switchers. It’s a good measure of how rapidly non-consumers are being converted to consumers.

The data shows that there are as many first time smartphone adoptions in late 2012 as there were in late 2010. Or, the new-to-smart users are joining ecosystems just as quickly when penetration is 50% as when it was 20%. An encouraging situation when considering the opportunity space above 50%. The “S-curve” has not reached an inflection point.

If you’re thinking about growth, so far so good. There is however one surprise in the data.

All the growth in the last 24 months (between 2010 and present) was due to Android and iOS. Android added 50 million and iOS added 26 million in the last 24 months. The net smartphone user additions were about 60 million (RIM lost about 12 million, Windows lost 1.5 million and others lost 2.6 million). Android therefore has gained twice as many users as iOS has in this two-year period. Put another way, Android captured 70% of the growth and iOS captured 30% of the growth.

However, if we look at the last 12 months, the split is 23.5 million for Android and 17.0 million for iOS. Android gained 58% of the growth and Apple captured 42%–a change in “spread” from 40 points to 16 in favor of Android.

The evidence also shows itself in the trajectory of platform market shares of installed base.

In the last six months, Android share growth is slowing while iOS is still gaining.

If this trend continues then the next 50% may not behave as one might expect (namely that late adopters would take the low-cost commodity offering accelerating Android adoption.) Late adopters may, in fact, be choosier than early adopters. And it’s not at the cost of overall growth. Late adopters are still converting at the same rate of the early adopters.

Therefore, paradoxically, the late market shows that the prospect for iOS growth seems strong. Furthermore, as we do reach saturation, perhaps in another three years, the secular growth may end in the US but the loyalty of iOS usage may give iOS another advantage in a market where growth is determined by “platform churn”

The US is the crucible of the phone market in many ways so what happens in the US may be a harbinger for what happens world-wide.

  • why there is no mention of Symbian here its also a smartphone platform.

    • rattyuk

      Android *is* the new Symbian.

    • It’s in the Other category. In the US, Symbian is at 0.6%.

  • Liberty

    The US market is unique in that it is almost impossible to move your phone from one carrier to the next, and this increased device lock in has so far allowed the carriers to keep subscription prices at a significantly higher level than elsewhere. As a consequence the relative premium (for a 2 year contract with device) people have to pay to get the iPhone instead of an Android device is much lower in the US, effectively removing price as a major buying criterium.
    It will be interesting to see in which direction the price conscious will move: Will they go premium, but replace their phones only say every 4 years, or will they go cheap, but replace them more often?

    • qka

      In the US, there is a dis incentive to keep a phone for longer than the (usually) two year contract period. Just because the phone has been paid off, the carriers do not reduce the monthly fee; they get to live on your overpayment. Unless you can move it to another lower priced plan or carrier, you may think that you are better off getting a new phone.

  • Relentlessfocus

    Wow, this really goes against my expectations about later adopters. I guess the question for Apple and iOS is at what point the standard expectation that late buyers of smartphones are low income, low budget, low interest buyers whose main buying rational is price kick in?
    Or is it that buying into a data plan means that the late adopter has already committed to a new level of spending and therefore is not totally price sensitive and like most of us wants a cool personal device if they’re going to buy anything and therefore whatever iOS price differential exists is not critical?

    • Jeff G

      Lots of late adopters are just resistant to making the switch. My personal (unscientific) observation is that plenty of people around me (In Scottsdale, AZ 85255) have money to buy smart phones, but wait for a major catalyst. My parents for example. Mom, has an iPad. They both have computers, but they have a really old (yucky) feature phone. They can certainly afford it, and my guess is they will make the switch eventually. Because they have an iPad, (And because they follow a lot of the lead my wife and I do… They will certainly go iOS, if and when that time comes.

      Rich next door neighbors to me, married couple with one child… 3 feature phones.

      And, as far as the lower income consumers go… I have been quizzing/polling people. Our pool guy (The one who does the work, not the owner of the company) has iPhone and only buys Apple products. 2 of the 4 guys who wiped my car down last time I got it washed, had iOS.

      My grandad used to say repeatedly, “A poor man can’t afford to buy things twice” The device you carry with you all the time, and that is your wireless connection to other people, the internet, GPS, your apps… is just not where everyone will want to skimp. Some will, some won’t but there is always room for both. I expect both will thrive for many years, or decades.

      • oases

        The iPad halo effect (for the iPhone). No wonder Google wants tablets to cost almost nothing.

      • unhinged

        “A poor man can’t afford to buy things twice”

        Words to live by.

  • Aapl Investor

    How does this jive with recent reports that android made up 75% of smartphone shipments in the most recent qtr?

    • jawbroken

      Which report and was it global or US?

    • rattyuk

      “How does this jive with recent reports that android made up 75% of smartphone shipments”

      Shipments are not sales.

    • Amit123456789

      That’s global.

  • Amit123456789

    Apple added Verizon and Sprint in 2011. Isn’t this the reason for iOS growth?

    iPhone may have been first out but Android was first on all carriers.

    • Sacto_Joe

      Apple is presumed to have left an opening for Android by giving an exclusive to AT&T. I’m not so sure. For years now, Apple has been constrained by its inability to produce sufficiently to match demand, even though it has been growing production capacity like crazy. Android, on the other hand, has been under far less of a production constraint, since multiple manufacturers are rushing to fill that demand. The real question is, when Apple is finally able to ratchet production up to a level where it can match the production of Android products (about two years off, I figure), will we see a circumstance where Apple begins to take maket share away from Android? I am personally convinced that they will indeed take market share, not because either their OS or their physical products will be vastly superior, but because they will have a far more complete solution across computer devices in general. Indeed, at this point only Microsoft appears to have any chance of eventually competing on that level with Apple – and they have years before their mobile solutions could even hope to reach the level of an Apple or an Android.

      So no, I don’t think Apple’s growth has anything to do with finally selling through Verizon and Sprint. I think it has purely to do with Apple’s ability to grow its production capacity.

      • Walt French

        Verizon was HEAVILY involved in creating the Android brand in the US, when it realized that smartphones were taking off and that Apple had taken Verizon’s advice to go away and not come back.

        Business practices in the US tie customers to their wireless provider, and so Apple had little chance of converting US customers from Verizon; the fact that Verizon put up with the seriously-deficient Android phones (pre-Froyo in 2010) is pretty much proof of that.

        Finally, if Tim Cook is half as good as we think he is, Apple would’ve redoubled its production efforts — they certainly have had the cash to do so. Fact is, Apple continues to provide the “profit umbrella” under which other smartphone producers find a LOT of business.

        And I think the answer to “why would they do that???” that has troubled Horace, is that as the current situations in India & China show, building out the infrastructure — with regulators, distributors, wireless providers, sales outlets, etc. — is the limiting factor. As Apple builds its footprint in these important markets, they can deliver the type of product they want to be known for.

      • They do provide an umbrella, but I don’t see a lot of profit leaking through. Tim’s statements about the umbrella continues to strike me as classic Jobsian misdirection.

    • The slowing was most pronounced in last 6 to 9 months.

  • A fascinating topic. Your hypothesis “Late adopters may, in fact, be choosier than early adopters.” correlates with my personal experience working with the emerging market phones (non-US).

    People with tight constraints on disposable income behave with their mobile device purchases in ways that are likely better explained by social behaviourists and psychologists than economists. The purchase is just so much more personal, unlike other purchases. Hence, I do not think lowest cost commodity offering wins but the product/brand with best value for money (not just acquisition cost, but total running cost including resale value).

    • Good point. The investment in the ecosystem should also be taken in consideration. How long could your purchases be used when upgrading your device? Apple has a solid reputation of consistency and easyness of upgrade.

      • Indeed. And for those reasons and others, Apple gear has good resale value. That second hand market may well end up being their “entry tier portfolio”, instead of doing budget versions of new products that may damage the brand.

      • I totally agree, and this isn’t even a new trend. Apple devices have a lifespan comparable to a car, if not superior, as there really isn’t the same kind of planned obsolescence in computing.

        There’s a used market, a new market, and design shops often lease Macs. They are easily financeable, service is a profit center, and design leads the way.

  • ‘… a change in spread from 40 points to 16 in favor of Andriod’. Don’t you mean ‘in favor of iOS’.

    • It went from a 40 point spread in favor of Android to a 16 point spread in favor of Android.

    • I was confused by this, too. It seemed to me when I read it that the point was that the change resulted in an improvement to the position of iOS w.r.t. Android.

    • I assume this was a mistake in phrasing. I read it as iOS closing the gap.

  • “namely that late adopters would take the low-cost commodity offering accelerating Android adoption”

    When an iPhone 4 is $0, what is the low-cost option?

    • Tatil_S

      There are many companies offering much cheaper data plans without phone subsidies, so that the cost of the phone becomes a lot more apparent. For those who don’t travel internationally, Virgin’s $30/mo plan could be one such.

    • Touché.

      • Agreed. I think this could account for Apple’s latest quarter numbers in which they showed higher than forecasted iPhone 4 and 4S sales.

    • studuncan

      An iPhone 4 doesn’t actually sell for $0. It has a significant contract attached to it. Not all Android phones have such a large contract.

      • Joe_Winfield_IL

        The vast majority of phone subscribers in the U.S. are post-paid, so contracts aren’t really that big of a deal. The difference between $0 with contract and $99 unsubsidized is enough to push most customers to sign a two-year agreement, without even considering that the $0 (w/contract) phone is probably far more valuable hardware than the $99 option. Add in the fact that the free phone is an iPhone, and consumers have an easy choice. It’s not as if the carriers pass along any savings in the monthly rates to non-contract subscribers; for most, the only benefit is the freedom to elect a new carrier.

        Prepaid is another matter entirely, but the major carriers have effectively scared users away with threats of poor coverage and customer service on the prepaid networks.

      • unhinged

        From a US-centric point of view, I agree. However, there are things to be learned about the overall market by looking at those countries where pre-paid and/or non-subsidized phones are the norm.

      • Joe_Winfield_IL

        I agree. And Apple has to find a way to balance its huge price advantage in the subsidized US model with its need to reach more consumers in the rest of the world. In areas driven primarily buy prepaid or unsubsidized plans, Apple has left a massive price umbrella.

        I have no thoughts on how Apple can achieve this balance, but I think it’ll be key to the next phase of iPhone market growth.

      • I don’t think it would too hard to balance, at least in the US market. You’d have a classic iPhone lineup that costs $450/$550/$650 unsubsidized or $0/$100/$200 with contract; and then you’d have the low-end model costing $299 unsubsidized and the same $0 on contract. So postpaid customers would keep buying the expensive model and prepaid customers would prefer the new cheaper model.

    • KirkBurgess

      I question how many of the “late adopters” are the kind of people that would be paying $70+ USD a month for a monthly voice+data plan that would enable them to get a $0 iphone 4.

      • Don’t underestimate the job(s) smartphones are hired to do. Reflect on the idea that more people own phones than own toothbrushes. A smartphone (and a data plan) will be more important than hygiene.

  • tedcranmore

    I have long felt that the late adopters would favor iOS over Android because the brand trust and ease of use would be the key factors with Aunt Millie purchased her first smartphone. The widgets and configurability of Android are meant for the techies, and not the group that is a little bit scared that the tech will be too much for them and what something that is better but also easy. The other key factor here is that $0 iPhone 4 and $99 4S are also widely available now making the ease of Apple also affordable. Put these two factors together, and you have a excellent choice for the late adopter.

    • BioNerd

      Interface-wise, latest Android versions are as easy of use as iOS, even for non- techies. The interface is clean, minimalist and task-oriented. Generally speaking, you need less taps top do things than on iOS. For the geeks it goes a little ahead: you can use two apps in the same screen.

      Android also has a decent user satisfaction and loyalty — 77 or 80%, I don’t recall exactly, more than enough when you have over 70% of the market.

      But what makes the difference are the “wow” features both for new users and techies, like “Google Now” or “Photosphere” pics and picture filters, and the much enhanced default apps that you use all the time — Chrome, Google Maps and the camera app.

      Google Now misses a lot, but when it predicts exactly what you need you get hooked instantly. It is magical.

    • aa

      – i agree, “aunt millie” sure want something very simple to use (and iOS is still for the moment simpler to use than android) but won’t she be ask her nephew (the geek) what to buy ? and won’t he tell her to buy the same android device he own because he will be here to do her tech support ?

  • @twitter-110520327:disqus The color TV analogy is weak.
    While color TVs cost more than black/white TVs, NBC did not send you a monthly bill for watching in color.

    • Jeff G

      Neither did having a color TV, make you money or save you money vs having black and white. Switching from feature phone to smart phone (iOS or android) can make you money or save you money if you use it creatively, productively and efficiently (in business, shopping, communicating, managing life). So the switch from non-consumption to consumption has some difficult to measure ROI associated with it for many people (Whereas color TV, just had. “I like it better”)

      And if they are going to make that leap to smart phone, they will have the monthly bill with either Android or iOS so platform is not a differentiating factor.

  • Walt French

    Allow me to introduce the “one over n” logic that shows, for instance, how US workers balance their company-sponsored investing plans. If there are 7 good choices, they put about 15% of their allocation to each; if there are 20, they will give about 5% to each.

    Maybe something like this has worked in phones in stores: walk into say, a Verizon store and there are 15 different models, a couple of which are Apples. Of course, many buyers have specific notions of what they want, but others with less certainty will zero in on one that catches their eye as different, and justify their choice by ex-post confirming that it does what they want.

    I will *postulate* (the example above could well show that I don’t spend much time in Verizon stores) that the industry shakeout has left fewer viable choices around for this 1/n effect.

    Also, late adopters may well be more likely to turn to friends for advice (rather than more anonymous tech sites), and Strategy Analytics’ report noted today shows Apple continues to dominate in the customer “likely to repeat the brand” scores. (

    This post is about NEW users, but the economics of the industry are ALSO driven by repeat customers. Here, the satisfaction scores are damning: Apple’s drop, from 93% to 88%, is insignificant versus the advantage it commands over EVERY other brand. If these “will buy again” scores actually held up, Apple would be expected to gain share of repeat buyers, because fewer iPhone users defect, while the currently larger number of Android users will send more switchers to Apple.

    This dynamic exacerbates the fact that so many Android brands are unprofitable; Google can keep pouring money into the software, but the hardware partners have a harder time in re-investing into a competitive line. Look at the fact that the “flagship” Nexus 4 arrives without LTE in a US market that is at the highest-growth LTE availability phase, and you see an example of how profits matter.

    The final point bearing on this “surprising” shift is that the marketplace is in fact demanding increasingly sophisticated devices. The original iPhone would sell badly no matter how cheaply it was sold unsubsidized, because it doesn’t meet people’s rising expectations. The “job to be done” is constantly being re-defined… in Apple’s direction, even as Androids gain competitive ability.

    • MasterRothschild

      Keep trying to convince yourself of that as AAPL drops another $160 because they will miss again.

      How is “the job to be done” being re-defined in Apple’s direction when Apple’s “revolutionary” features are features that have existed on Android for over two years?

      The world is in a global recession and consumers want value. Apple is not known for its value. Apple is known for its trendiness.

      • Is this a new Apple that did not exist in 2008 & 2009 during the gravest recession since 1929? That company managed to grow throughout that period of global recession.

      • MasterRothschild

        Yes, it is a new Apple. The old Apple had Steve Jobs and no real competition in the tablet market. The new Apple has Tim Cook, Siri and Map apps that neither work and such a large threat from Android defining a new small tablet market that even Apple had to back-peddle on its founder’s mighty words and follow Android’s lead with its own mini tablet device.

        That is the new Apple. The new $300/shr AAPL.

  • suddy

    Hi Horace,

    Great insightful analysis. Was there a “free (with contract)” iPhone 24 months back? the inflection point favoring Apple iPhone rather than a low cost Android smartphone must have happened when Apple first started offering “free” iPhones with 2 year contract in the US. For a feature phone to smartphone switcher, when presented this option, gravitates towards the iPhone. If you can present that data point in your chart, that would be awesome.


  • suddy

    Hi Horace,

    Great insightful analysis. Was there a “free (with contract)” iPhone 24 months back? the inflection point favoring Apple iPhone rather than a low cost Android smartphone must have happened when Apple first started offering “free” iPhones with 2 year contract in the US. For a feature phone to smartphone switcher, when presented this option, gravitates towards the iPhone. If you can present that data point in your chart, that would be awesome.


  • gprovida

    I am a bit confused, how do you differentiate between new purchases vs people updating from Android to iOS. Given the much higher satisfaction rating, would much of the current sales be early adopters choosing iOS vs Android when they renew and masking the behavior of new consumption?

    • Android users are still mostly on their first smartphone although there is undoubtedly some churn.

  • Joe_Winfield_IL

    In the US, there is no reason NOT to upgrade phones every two years for a large portion of the population. Post-paid subscriptions dominate, and the carriers do not pass along any discount once the two year contract term and accompanying device subsidy expire. Any user can, for free, up for another two years with their existing carrier and walk out with a new phone. Of course, not all phones are free with contract, but many are. Until recently, Apple didn’t have a dog in this fight. The only option for a free iPhone is the n-2 model (currently iPhone 4), and until this generation, it was only available on AT&T.

    The media focus has rightly been on the newest and best phones for a while, but I think as saturation approaches, the biggest battle will be for the customer who wants a free new phone. I’m glad that Apple continues to support older devices with the latest OS; it gives buyers a clear understanding of exactly what they are getting for the extra $100-200. For Android, the decision is much less clear. There are so many phones at so many price points that the decision is muddy.

    Besides the price conscious, the other major group of late adapters includes technophobes and elderly users. This group should dramatically favor Apple, not for the halo/network effects that have benefited the company among early adapters, but for the simplicity of iOS compared to Android. My mother was terrified to get a smartphone. She recently purchased one only because wanted a better screen for showing off photos of her grandkids. When she finally bit the bullet, there was no debate; she bought the iPhone because it was infinitely less intimidating to her than the managerie of Android options.

    • madmaxmedia

      “Besides the price conscious, the other major group of late adapters includes technophobes and elderly users.”

      I think you got it right there. Actually, you can pretty much combine both groups into just “technophobes”, which is what most elderly users are. That’s one thing the Samsung ad (featuring iPhone line waiters) got right. 😉

      At the other end of the age scale, first-time phone owners are probably going mostly smartphone. Not sure (beyond what I see anecdotally) what they are favoring as a group.

  • oases

    Explain that, Mr. Christensen and acolytes…

    • Walt French

      Perhaps you’d explain yourself.

      What DO you believe, or are you just interested in dismissing somebody who goes public with his efforts to understand markets?

      • oases

        I haven’t dismissed anyone. I believe the postulation that Apple is about to face disruption from below by inexpensive entrants is reductive. Science and empiricism work until they meet art:

      • FalKirk

        “I believe the postulation that Apple is about to face disruption from below…” – oases

        I’ll take that bet. With 75% shipments and only 25% profits, its Android that is in danger of disruption, not iOS.

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  • One sign of a platform’s ability to get-the-job-done might be significant changes in patterns of defection among early adopters, combined with sequential and parallel hiring by late adopters.

    For instance, early-adopter Android phone users who switch to iPhone give up a lot. They are truly defecting from one political system to another. The fact that the switching happens far more into the iPhone party than the other way around is telling.

    • Unfortunately I don’t know if I can support this idea beyond anecdotal evidence.

      Among a certain demographic… say 25-35 year old college educated males I’d
      wager this pattern of defection and parallelism is common, and highly correlated with age. I don’t think the traditional arguments about disposable income or fashion hold water – but experience and maturity do.

      I’d also expect to see this pattern in 55-65 year old women, quite literally the mothers of the first group.

      It may simply be the network effect of hand-me-up devices and gifts, but I think the increasing maturity of the platforms and users becomes a kind of cultural accelerant. People notice when their friends or family change their culture.

      The smart late adopter learned this at an early age: watch what the early adopters do, let them sort out the bugs. In the meantime, you reap the over service of the incumbents

    • madmaxmedia

      My guess is that they are choosier not because they know more, but because they know less. This favors iOS over Android due to Apple’s reputation for ease-of-use.

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  • Is this just explained by the Feb 2011 Verizon iPhone launch? Curiously, it seems that VZW launching the iPhone did not accelerate the rate of feature phone to smartphone conversion. Maybe Androids are just as good as iPhones when it comes to converting featurephone users.

    A global story would likely be different as the iPhone daily activations have grown ~50+% Q3 2011 to Q3 2012 and Android activations have grown by ~150%.

    • I’ll be writing about this soon but here’s a hint: Android addressable market has grown far more rapidly than Apple’s addressable market.

      • Looking forward to your pont of view. My thinking was that Android had been available on each of the Big Four from $0 to $199 while Apple added Sprint and VZW and new lower price points, thus increasing reach.

  • bernie101

    Wild guessing here. S-curve is sensitive to other demographic dimensions beyond the obvious “early adopter – “late follover” dimension.
    Early adopters of smartphones have been technically interested and/or wanting the latest (at least a bit of show off) and/or hoping for true productivity gains and/or affluent (well off) and/or young.
    There are usually few tech’s, few young’s, few wanting the latest, few show-offs left in the mainstream/late follower group.
    But, later adopters are usually risk minimizers not striving for the latest but for something easy to use and with steady incomes so not particularly sensitive to 100 or even 200/300 dollar price differences (thats just 14 or 28/42 cents extra per day for daily use over 730 days (a 2year write-off).
    Make it painless and minimize their problems.
    This is the ideal target group for the Apple market message and very unlikely to be swayed by tech opinionistas that they don’t read and telco operator sales staff that they don’t trust.

  • TinWooo

    Sounds like a pretty solid plan to me dude. Wow.

  • People who don’t have smartphones don’t want them or can’t afford the subscription. But when the conclusion is “Apple is awesome” you get analysis that says holdouts are waiting for a more awesome iPhone.

  • Late adopters may be choosier, and better informed. So why would they choose an iPhone over one of the really clever Android devices, like a Galaxy Note? Why would they not choose “choice”?

    • They could, but the point is not about performance choice but price choice. The vast number of Android devices available have an overall lower price on average.

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  • harg

    is all of this data from comscore? if not, can you give us a hint on your source? it’s fantastic info, but not anything i’ve ever seen from a quality source.

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