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Can Android Conquer the U.S.?

For starters, smartphone owners are far more tech-savvy than they were a few years ago.


My iPhone- and Mac-wielding friend from the U.S. had been eager to make the jump to Android. She was willing to defect from Apple to join in on the Xiaomi hype, so I purchased a Mi3 for her.

After one week, I nudged her for feedback, and her response shocked me: “I’m going to get the iPhone 6 when it comes out. Android is too complicated.” Her feedback hints at the core of why Apple’s operating system, despite iOS fatigue setting in, continues to hold its ground in the U.S. while the rest of the world has embraced Android.

Speculation suggests that Apple’s closed ecosystem is slowly losing to Android on the back of Android’s commanding 78.1 percent global market share, according to the IDC. In the global market, iOS accounts for just 17.6 percent. However these same metrics within the U.S. market size up a stronger competitor: iOS accounts for 41.6 percent of the U.S. market, with a 1.2 percent gain in Q4 2013 compared to Android’s 51.5 percent share.

Of course, Apple isn’t going anywhere. But during Apple’s Q1 2014 earnings call, the Wall Street Journal managed to get Tim Cook to divulge something about Apple’s struggles with the U.S. market. “North America was a challenge. We had no growth,” Cook said.

This struggle is an opportunity for Android to run away with the U.S. market.

Price no longer drives sex appeal

For a long time, many have argued that an elitist agenda motivated smartphone users to purchase iOS instead of Android. IOS has been a premium device, despite its minimalistic features and lack of customizability, which the U.S. has embraced.

However, the argument suggesting that the elite only buy Apple is eroding. Smartphones are aggressively subsidized in the U.S. by carriers, and iOS is pitted against high-end competitors boasting similar pricing and superior hardware from LG, Samsung, HTC, Huawei, Nokia and others. The aura of “exclusivity” the iPhone once offered because of its high price is no longer Android’s problem.

The U.S. still doesn’t want a la carte for now

The issue is with Android’s customizability — its double-edged sword. Although Android has much to offer in the form of phablet-sized screens, top-tier hardware specs, choices of apps to customize your OS, forked versions of Android, and a wide spectrum of price points to suit buyers of different budgets, not everyone in the U.S. seems to be convinced that they want variety and customizability.

Ask an iOS user about Android, and many would argue that it isn’t as user-friendly, sleek and bug-free as iOS. You’ll also get the occasional input that Android phones don’t have the weighty “iPhone feel” in the user’s hands.

This mentality is even transparent among the types of apps that we’ve seen succeed in the U.S., such as QuizUp, WhatsApp, Instagram and Mailbox. App developers looking to break into the U.S. must design their apps to be straightforward, with a sleek user-interface and limited customizable features.

Think of the dynamic this way. WeChat supports both English and Mandarin versions of the same app, but the latter version is chock-full of features and options, just the way Chinese users like it; the former is stripped-down.

Android’s climb into the U.S. market begins

With the combination of game-changing, albeit customizable, Android mobile devices entering the market, and with technology increasingly intertwined with our lives, a couple of factors in play will contribute to Android’s chance at running away with the U.S. mobile-device market share.

Smartphone owners today are far more tech-savvy than they were a few years ago. Apple wouldn’t have bet on a brand-new design for iOS 7 without being confident that its users were savvy enough to navigate iOS without its skeuomorphic design. Now, with a heightened awareness of the tech behind a smartphone, Android’s customizability will become increasingly attractive to the growing number tech-savvy smartphone users, among which could be ex-iOS users.

In parallel, while Apple convinced consumers to buy into a brand that happened to be sold at a premium, emerging Android hardware manufacturers from the East, such as Xiaomi, Zoppo, OnePlus and others are managing to replicate the fanaticism Apple’s users once had. In contrast to Apple, these new companies are growing fanbases with smartphones that retail for half or even a quarter of the cost of a new iPhone, and that have specs rivaling the market’s high-end smartphones.

It’s only a matter of time before these budding hardware manufacturers using Android will break into the U.S. smartphone market and set off a war for U.S. users between iOS and Android.

Si Shen is the co-founder and CEO of PapayaMobile, a social gaming network with more than 127 million gamers, and the parent company of AppFlood, the largest global mobile RTB network out of China. PapayaMobile is headquartered in Beijing, with offices in London and San Francisco. Reach her @sishen.

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