If you've been following Android news this past week then you've probably read about Google's boast that over 70 million Android devices have been activated and that half of tablets sold this year ran Android.
This boast caused quite a few raised eyebrows this week as tech pundits tried to square the claim with the general knowledge that Android devices aren't showing up in server logs or ad networks and the general belief that no one uses Android tablets.
I took an interest in that topic yesterday and I found an answer which surprised me.
I’m curious how Google squares these claims with all the usage share numbers that show Android tablets at far below 50 percent. Either the usage share numbers are wrong, or people just don’t use the Android tablets they buy.
Arment also tipped me to speculation by John Moltz:
I wonder if they include non-Google versions of “Android” in these numbers. But in answer to John’s query, if you were not entirely committed to tablet computing, wouldn’t you be likely to buy the cheapest tablet available? And when the user experience doesn’t wow you, you tend not to use it. It’s obviously not like that for everyone but I wonder if that doesn’t explain some of this.
If you are a contented Android user (like me) then you may be tempted to simply write this off as unfounded speculation. I was going to do just that when, but the next day a reader told me that his server logs showed that hardly anyone was visiting his site from an Android device:
On our web site (http://physicstoday.org) we have over 9000 visitors a month from tablets (growing at roughly 7% a year but that might change when the students head back to university). About 1000 of them are android users, the rest are using iPads as their device. That ratio has been consistent for the last year.
This data point is particularly interesting because it mirrors the info released by Chitaka, which reported that iPads represented 84% of the tablets on their ad network (in June as well as earlier months).
I would also have liked to cite Statcounter as a third independent source but I can't get their report generator to work. So I am limited at the moment to just 2 data points that tend to disagree with Google's boast.
One could take the easy road and simply ignore one side of the conflict or guess at a simple answer, but yesterday I instead took the slightly more difficult path.
I went looking for more data, and I found out that the situation actually isn't much more complicated than consumers buying Android because it was cheap and then setting it aside because it was unpleasant to use.
It turns out that the app analytics firm Flurry has been posting relevant data on their blog for some time now that fills in the holes that some pundits are paving over with their assumptions. For example, in June Flurry reported that they're tracking more Android devices (smartphone + tablets) than iThings:
As you can see, the latest data is from April 2013 and it shows that there are more Android devices in use than iThings.
At this point we have arrived at the question I originally set out to answer: why aren't Android devices showing up online?
As you can see from the above chart, the devices exist and are in use. They're just not being recorded as being online. And what's even more interesting is that Flurry has data from April 2013 that shows this as well:
We know that Android accounts for half the devices in use, but Flurry shows that Android doesn't account for half the time spent browsing. Now that is an interesting discrepancy, is it not?
I don't know about you but it makes me wonder if perhaps the stock Android browser is so marginally adequate that users avoid it.
That might be causing Android users to spend proportionally more time in apps than in the web browser (as compared to iThing users). This could have been caused by the quirks of one platform pushing users one way while the other platform pushes users the other way.
But according to Flurry, Android users are actually spending less time in apps than iThing users:
So at this point we have reports that Android devices are being bought and they are being used, only they're not being used as much as iThings.
I don't know about you but I am beginning to suspect that there is truth to the idea that Android devices offer a poorer user experience than iThings. The data would seem to support that argument, don't you think?
Please note that I am not saying that Android in general is worse; I love my Kindle Fire HD and I have found numerous imminently usable cheap Android tablets. But I do think it is possible that the average user experience, when you consider all Android devices, rates far below that of iThings.
If I had to guess I would bet that the open source aspect of Android is dragging down the average. Any fool can slap together an Android firmware and throw it on a device, no matter how crappy, and then sell it to an unsuspecting consumer. That is not a problem that Apple has to deal with.
It's the dregs of the market that are dragging down the average, not the less rough budget Android devices like the Nexus 7, original Kindle Fire, and the like. If I am right then this is a situation that Android is going to have endure pretty much forever.
The problem of a poorer user experience is probably never going to go away, and that is because the devices that are dragging down the average never actually leave the market while more are added everyday. You can still find devices released in 2010 and 2011 on the market today as refurbs and even in new condition. (I still get traffic on the how-to posts covering those tablets.)
The original Pandigital Novel tablets (black and white) are still available and they are just as crappy to use today as they were then. The same can be said for the original Velocity Micro tablets, Viewsonic's POS gTablet that was released in 2010, the many generic Chinese tablets released in the past 3 years, and even the crappy Coby tablets I reviewed last year.
If nothing else, one takeaway is that Android is trading quality for quantity. So the next time you read about some huge number of Android users, ask yourself how many are actually satisfied with their gadgets. Chances are that will be a much smaller number.
And another takeaway: The stock Android web browser is probably the worst part of the Android user experience. It should be used proportionally more than it is.