The Ecosystem Chess Game

Harry McCracken, “United’s In-Flight Video Streaming: More Evidence That Apple Won the App Wars”:

Much of the time, I’m an Android user myself, so I’m happy when something is available for Google’s operating system and sorry when it isn’t. But despite the fact that iOS’s market share is much smaller than that of Android, and has been for years, Apple devices are still nearly always first in line when a major company or hot startup has to decide where to allocate its development resources. That’s a dynamic that pundits keep telling us makes no sense — but it’s happening, and it’s an enormous competitive advantage for Apple. Sounds like a victory to me.

I largely agree with McCracken, but I’ll quibble over a word choice. Calling it an “app war” misses the key element that has given iOS such a strong position. iOS has a gazillion apps, available and easily installed from an app store. Android has a gazillion apps, available and easily installed from various app stores — and all Android phones from major brands come with the standard Google Play store pre-installed. If all you think about are “apps”, it does sound like Android ought to be on even ground, if not outright winning, because of its larger market share.

I’d say it’s an ecosystem war, not an app war — and that once you start thinking about it this way, it makes sense why iOS is ahead, and tends to be supported first (if not exclusively) by things like United’s new in-flight streaming service or Facebook Paper.

Hardware-wise, that there are only a handful of iPhone and iPad models to support makes things easier for developers to target them. Plus, every iOS device ships with a GPU that is now, or within the last two years once was, a top-of-the-line mobile GPU. You can argue (I wouldn’t, but clearly, many do) that from a consumer standpoint, Android’s plethora of device choices is a good thing. But from a third-party developer standpoint, the fewer the devices, the easier it is to support an entire platform. The sweet spot for making a platform appealing to developers is to have many users on a small number of devices. That’s iOS.

Software-wise, iOS and Android are only equivalent on the surface: UNIX-like operating systems under the hood, with a touchscreen UI presented to the user. But from a developer standpoint they’re not equivalent. Android does (or perhaps better put, allows) things iOS does not. But iOS has depth in some areas, like video playback and GPU accelerated animation, where Android is shallow. I’ve spoken to numerous developers from companies with streaming video services, and all of them agree that it is not just easier, but far easier, to support iOS than Android. Apple has decades of experience with video playback (and video editing — something else that’s far more work on Android) and graphics acceleration. iOS can draw a lineage in these regards back to the first versions of QuickTime (1992) and NeXTStep (1989).

And then there are user demographics. If you simply speak of market share — that platform A has 70 percent share, platform B has 25 percent share, so therefore platform A ought to be more appealing to developers than B — you’re implying that all users are equivalent. They’re not. As I wrote a year ago in a Branch thread on iOS/Android usage discrepancies (why do iOS users spend more money, install more apps, and browse the web more, even though they’re outnumbered):

The elephant in the room: people who choose iOS devices are better customers than people who choose Android. Or inverted: iOS (and iOS devices) are designed to attract better customers.

I think the reason many shy from stating this bluntly is that “better customers” sounds dangerously close to “better people”. But there’s no reason to tip-toe around this. There’s no hypocrisy in believing that all people are created equal, but all customers are not.

An example, pertaining aptly to United’s new in-flight service: Gogo’s in-flight wi-fi usage numbers from one year ago:

Apple devices are still reigning above the clouds, following the tablet trend with the iPad being the device of choice. Among all mobile devices being used to connect through Gogo, 84 percent carry Apple’s iOS operating system while 16 percent carry the Android operating system. If you look only at the smartphones our customers are using, the iPhone makes up 73 percent and all Android devices make up 26 percent, with Blackberry and Windows based devices each making up less than 1 percent of devices being used in air.

Assuming United’s in-flight wi-fi numbers are even vaguely in line with Gogo’s, iOS wins in terms of market share too. Apple offers a more appealing hardware platform (far fewer devices, all of them with high end performance); a richer, deeper software platform; and a more engaged, higher-spending customer base. It’s all of these factors in conjunction that make iOS the mobile platform with the strongest developer support. Android’s raw market share is indeed the best thing Android has going for it, developer-support-wise, but it’s nowhere near enough to overcome Apple’s remaining advantages.

It’s not fair to say that Apple is playing chess while Google, Samsung, Microsoft, and the rest are playing checkers. It’s more like they’re all playing chess, Apple is winning, but there’s a large contingent of the tech and investor commentariat who think the game is checkers and thus are deeply confused.