Dark Matter

Benedict Evans explains well the problem with measuring Android tablets. There are no reliable data collected because many of the devices are invisible through the regular, measurable channels:

  • There are no firms which report their shipments
  • They are not sold through retail chains which normally are sampled in the US and Europe (NPD and GfK respectively.)
  • They don’t show up in browsing or ad transaction data
  • Google Play statistics are missing most of the activations since they are not sold as bona fide Google-sanctioned Android.

The only measured statistic happens to be component shipments. Items such as screens, CPUs or perhaps memory might be visible to market analysts. It’s therefore tempting to add up tires manufactured to determine what’s getting sold in auto dealerships.

But it’s also hugely problematic.

Before we go into that rat’s hole, I want to re-visit my original criticism for market analysis based on device attributes. When the iPad was new it was famously labeled a “media tablet” by Gartner and excluded from being counted (and hence compared) with PCs. This created an implicit signal to the analyst’s clients to ignore the entrant as irrelevant.

That actually accelerated their demise (and the revenue prospects for the analyst).

In contrast to that exclusion–of a clear and present danger based on an arbitrary definition of form factor–the analyst who defines categories of products purely on the definition of their components is guilty of the same sin.

Snowing the audience with irrelevant comparisons is just as bad as withholding relevant comparisons. This is explicitly asked of witnesses: to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The “nothing but the truth” means the exclusion of irrelevance.

The correct approach is to identify which devices are comparable (and thus in the same category) based on the jobs they’re hired to do. If a tablet overlaps considerably in the work it does with a PC (e.g. browsing, email, media play, and other applications) then they should be considered comparable. If a tablet does nothing that a PC does or nothing that an iPad does (e.g. no browsing, email, apps or ecosystem activity other than piracy) then they should not be considered comparable.

Which brings me back to the question of what these dark matter “Android tablets” actually do.

To answer I want to recall another “dark matter” technology that seems to have gone largely unnoticed but was exceptionally popular. This was the VCD or Video CD. It was an alternative to the DVD without the licensing and DRM overhead it entailed. It was extremely popular in Asia as a way of not only buying but also sharing video content. The cost of content was a fraction of sanctioned versions, essentially taking the role that mass-copied VHS had in previous years.

The “job to be done” was to enjoy video content cheaply and conveniently for the equivalent of pennies a day. A job very similar to what we think of as cable TV today.

These devices and discs were largely invisible mainly because they did not exist in economies which adopted protected DVDs and because the content consumed did not hit against any databases that tracked consumption. Nevertheless there might have been hundreds of millions of these devices sold and billions of discs viewed.

Now we are in a situation where devices whose primary purpose is to watch video content (cheaply and conveniently) are being counted. By their counting, their implicit competitiveness is asserted. But it means nothing if they are not hired for the same jobs. In fact it misdirects attention.

Sometimes these “low end” devices do grow up to swamp the higher-powered alternatives with good enough functionality. That is the innovator’s dilemma for low end disruption. But in some cases they don’t because other factors are at work. Because ecosystems have complex multi-sided markets and because regulations and channels and consumer behavior conflict with the technical specification.

For this reason the VCD did not “disrupt” DVD or grow up into a Blu-Ray equivalent that caused Hollywood to crumble. It faded away as an anomaly.

Whether the dark matter Video-only Android device will come to swamp the iPad will depend not on just volume shipments in select geographies. It will depend largely on the ecosystems built around it. The ecosystems of VCD were largely unsustainable because there was no value placed on the content itself. The value chain did not strive to sustain the technology. When something better came along, it got dropped.

In contrast, content-based value chains sustain technologies which keep the revenues coming. And we can measure this revenue.

You don’t need to look too hard for that in tablets. Apple states it quite frequently: total payments to developers.