Could IDC Be Really Wrong on Android?

IDC's recent prediction that Android would be the second most numerous smartphone OS in the world by 2013 has garnered much uncritical coverage. Here are the IDC bullets:

  • Symbian will retain its leadership position worldwide throughout the forecast period. Due primarily to the strength of Nokia in markets outside of the United States, Symbian continues to lead all other mobile operating systems.
  • Android will experience the fastest growth of any mobile operating system. Starting from a very small base of just 690,000 units in 2008, total Android-powered shipments will reach 68.0 million units by 2013, making for a CAGR of 150.4%. Android will benefit from having a growing footprint of handset vendors supporting it and will finish second to Symbian in shipments by 2013.

Before IDC Gartner made the same prediction, but by 2012. Both of these firms could turn out to be wrong -- very wrong.

It makes sense that Android will continue to gain, given the number of OEMs building and releasing devices with the OS. Indeed, Google SVP Jonathan Rosenberg, on the Q4 earnings call, said "Android started 2009 with just one device and is now at 20 in 48 countries." And the Verizon Android Droid is credited with dampening some of the iPhone's recent sales momentum: the iPhone sold "only" 8.7 million units vs. the 9.1 - 9.5 million that some of the most bullish Wall Street analysts had anticipated. 

OK, Apple sold 8.7 million iPhones in the most recent quarter, but it also sold sold 21 million iPods. The company doesn't break out iPod Touch sales. But while iPod sales are declining, iPod Touch sales are up. At the end of the last quarter there were almost 60 million iPhone OS devices around the globe (including the iPod Touch). Morgan Stanley estimated the number at 57 million in early December. 

So let's assume that 5 million of those 21 million iPods are iPod Touch devices. That would put the combined sales of the iPhone OS units at more than 70 million today. So the iPhone OS (not the iPhone itself) has already beaten the IDC Android unit sales projections for 2013. 

What happens tomorrow with the iPhone is important for the future success of the platform in the US market. Regardless of whether there's a new iPhone OS or 4G device, if Apple announces that AT&T exclusivity is through and that the handset will be available from Verizon and/or others, we're likely to see Android momentum falter. If not, Android will continue to gain steam.

Apple executives made some comments yesterday, however, that suggested AT&T exclusivity may not be done. They expressed confidence in AT&T and its ability to "fix" network problems that have frustrated and infuriated iPhone users. That kind of remark doesn't sound like one from a company about to walk away from its exclusive relationship with AT&T. But we'll see. 

If Apple fails to "cut the chord" tomorrow and broaden iPhone distribution in the US it will cede millions of users to Android. I would be happy using the Nexus One rather than switching to AT&T, with its network's mortally wounded reputation, to get the iPhone (I have an iPod Touch). And while it's not as intuitive or "elegant" as the iPhone, and the apps are not as polished, the N1 generally substitutes. Its speed and screen are better than the current iPhone as well. And the voice-text input features are compelling. 

Apple may not see this timing issue as critical. It will exit AT&T exclusivity at some point. If it does so now, it will establish itself on a trajectory to become the dominant smartphone in the US market and Android's rise will be blunted (though perhaps not RIM's, the current market leader). If it waits for 2011, US iPhone prospects will likely have moved on or set their sites on other handsets. All the defectors that are going to head to AT&T for the iPhone have already done so. 

As suggested, RIM is a wild card in this discussion and so is Windows Mobile, which is declining now but could get a big boost from WinMo 7. Nokia, regardless of Symbian UI upgrades, will continue to lose share in the US and Europe in the coming 12-18 months. It will remain strong in Asia, Latin America and Africa -- emerging markets that seek lower-cost handsets. Palm, I'm afraid, will be largely an also-ran in this race. 

The market for smartphones, however, is very much evolving and in flux. What happens tomorrow (from Apple) could be very significant for both the iPhone and for Android's future in the US. It might be that Apple makes the wrong choice, falters and Android benefits. The thinking that Android will automatically grow to be the world's number two, however, is simplistic.