The Android userbase

There’s been a number of good articles in the last few weeks illustrating my reservations about developing software for the Android market.

As part of Andrew Kim’s visualisation I linked to previously, he makes the following comment that I tend to agree with:

I’ve always categorized Android users into two key segments; nerds and budget buyers.

I’m going to assume when he says “nerds” he means in the same sense I do: “tech enthusiasts”, not meant in any sort of derogatory sense. The tech enthusiast is attracted to Android for the same reason they are attracted to Windows or Linux: they prefer getting their hands dirty with technology and tinkering, and don’t mind the relatively poor user experience that comes with the ability to do that. A tech enthusiast doesn’t feel comfortable with a controlled system like those Apple makes any more than a car enthusiast feels comfortable with modern, locked-down cars. I know a few people that fall into this category, and Android certainly seems like the platform for them. It’s the relative flexibility of the software and variety of the hardware that attracts them.

However, Kim goes on to say that it’s the budget buyers, not the nerds, accounting for the huge shipping numbers. I think this is clearest when you look at Horace Dediu’s graph of overall phone marketshare. Android’s marketshare gains are not coming wholly at the expense of other smartphone vendors, they’re mostly coming at the expense of “feature” (dumb) phones. The obvious reasoning is that previously, dumb phones were subsidised to being free with phone plans, whereas now it’s Android phones with the heaviest subsidies that come free. The budget buyer likes “free” stuff, forgetting that most of the cost goes into the plan.

This also goes into explaining the difference between Android market share on phones and Android market share on tablets. John Gruber’s analysis of the recent NPD Group report shows that the iPad’s dominance is overwhelming. At the same time, the distant second-place TouchPad’s “strong” sales can almost completely be explained by HP’s fire sale to get rid of them all after abysmal sales. So in the tablet market, where there is no real “free” option, the iPad reigns supreme. Again, Android is the domain of nerds and budget buyers, though there isn’t a lot to attract the budget buyer who accounts for most of the phone sales.

With most Android owners being budget buyers, it’s not surprising that it is a lot harder to make money from the Google Marketplace than it is from the App Store. Neil Hughes at AppleInsider writes that the Google Marketplace earns just 7% of the App Store’s profits. As Marco Arment comments, this abysmal number considering the difference in market share means that Android is just not a good environment for anyone wanting to sell software. The higher rates of piracy and fragmentation issues don’t help either.

As an app seller myself, I’ve been asked more than once to make an Android version of my modestly successful app. But looking at the numbers, there is just no possible way it could be worth my while. As long as the Android userbase is mostly made up of people who don’t want to spend money, it will never be attractive to developers who don’t want to pollute their work with ads.