The Android Engagement Paradox

by Andy

Horace Dediu over at Asymco has an interesting post today about IBM’s Digital Analytics Benchmark on US Black Friday sales, particularly the traffic generated by the mobile sector. With regards to tablets, the iPad is absolutely dominating it’s class, which is not a real surprise and not worth talking about. But when you consider phones, where US Android sales are up in absolute terms over the iPhone, the survey reports that it is the iPhone that is being used far more for online shopping. Horace goes on the review previous years and this trend is actually increasing — the proportion of iPhone usage to Android usage has increased from 2-to-1 in 2010 to 3-to-1 this year.

So the question is this, if the numbers of Android phones out there are increasing, why is their usage seemingly falling?

This engagement issue is an important one for app developers because we need to know where to concentrate our scarce development time and dollars. If a platform has limited coverage or a poor usage profile, then we don’t really want to put any effort into it. This study of online shopping is interesting because it involves a core function of web browsing, a major tenant of a smartphone. Dediu didn’t really offer any reasons for the disparity, other than to point out that because the installed base of each type of phone is so large then differences in demographics probably are not be a factor, but I can suggest a few reasons.

It would appear that Android users don’t realize that they have a web browser in their pocket. Maybe they purchased an Android phone when their contract was up and because smartphones are what the carriers push then that is what they buy. But in the process they are never sold on what a smartphone is and can do. They just want to call and text people, and seeing the latest weather forecast flash by on the screen is a piece of superficial smartness.

There are a lot of old devices out there, and with the very spotty history of operating systems upgrades there are a lot of Android devices running “very old” (in web years) versions. Those older versions had a very poor browser, making surfing the web an unpleasant experience; who wants to suffer through that in the heat of the battle on Black Friday? In contrast, Apple offers upgrades for a very large proportion of their devices (is there any-one still using a iPhone or iPhone 3G?) and users do upgrade, so they have the support for the latest web technology.

The iPhone UI is often criticized for being simple — a basic grid of icons spread across several side-scrollable pages, whereas Android has a more complex model of widgets, home pages and app drawers all arguing for our attention. There is just a lot more going on with the Android UI and I think people get overwhelmed by that complexity, so they learn a couple of things and give up on the rest. Complexity is one of the most difficult for we IT professionals to comprehend. We spend our lives using computing devices and have no fear of them, we use 4 key combinations to perform personalized actions, we remember rafts of options to bizarrely named command line operations, we intuitively soak up new user interfaces, but I’ve seen users stumped at pressing a button when there are only three choices on the screen. We regularly over-estimate what is complex and what is simple.

The seemingly shrinking engagement of Android users is troubling for app developers looking to target that market. People are not being tempted to use the browser, a function that is front and center of a smartphone’s existence. They are not motivated to shop, via phone, on Black Friday — the very peak of US shopping tradition. Google is intently interested in steering people to the browser and their cash engines of search and advertising. But if web surfing is failing to gain traction, if people are not using their smartphones as smartphones, then what chance does an independent app have of succeeding?