Android Outranks Apple in Desirability--and That's Huge

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Apple iPhone, Android Desire - Nielsen
Either I'm an extraordinary psychic, or smartphone market share studies are starting to get pretty damn predictable.

You know what I'm talking about, right? Every few weeks, a fresh analysis comes out with striking new details about how Android, iOS, and the other smartphone platforms are stacking up. Only every time, the results are basically the same:

Android makes some meaty market share gains. Apple drops a bit, or maybe holds steady. The rest of the not-so-sexy contenders -- RIM, Microsoft, whozit and whatzit -- hang on for dear life.

That trend's been repeating reliably for a good couple of years now. So when a study with some new type of insight crosses my desk here at JR Raphael World Headquarters, you'd better believe I sit up and take notice.

Today is one of those enchanting occasions. A new report from Nielsen -- the same guys who handle ratings for TV and practically everything else on the planet -- finds an interesting shift not just in smartphone market share but also in smartphone desirability. It's something the Nielsen crew has been measuring for some time now, but this marks a rare instance where we see a noteworthy change.

The change, in a nutshell, is that Android has now surpassed iOS in terms of consumer desirability. Or, in other words, more smartphone buyers are lusting after an Android than eyeing an iPhone.

The difference itself isn't enormous, mind you, but what it represents is arguably quite large. According to Nielsen, 31 percent of mobile consumers surveyed from January to March of this year said they wanted an Android device. That's up from 26 percent in the previous period, in late 2010. Thirty percent, meanwhile, said they wanted an Apple mobile device in the most recent analysis -- down from 33 percent in the late-2010 window.

Nielsen: Android iPhone Desire

Here's why that's significant: In all the months we've been measuring Android's astronomical rise, there have always been skeptical explanations about what's happening and why. The most common comment I see is the "Android's only winning because it's cheap" theory -- the hypothesis that people really want iPhones but settle for Android phones because their carriers offer good sales.

Nielsen's new study, in asking what mobile operating system consumers want, lends credit to the notion that -- yep -- plenty of folks pick Android phones for more than just their price. We're looking at desirability here, after all. The "cool" factor. What triggers that "gotta have it" impulse deep within your noggin.

According to Nielsen, that factor is staying consistent with sales. The stat fiends found a full half of people who bought a smartphone in the past six months went with Android. Only a quarter took the iPhone route.

Nielsen: Android-iPhone Purchases

That brings us to interesting point number two: something I like to call the "wait for..." variable. The "wait for..." variable is the tendency for people to write off Android's gains by saying that some Apple product looming in the future will turn everything around. "Wait for the iPhone 4" was a popular one for a long time -- the theory that, in the months leading up to Apple's revelation of the iPhone 4, potential buyers were merely waiting for the latest and greatest product to arrive before dropping their dollars and getting on-board the iTrain. (Spoiler: It didn't work out like that.)

More recently, the "wait for..." variable has revolved around the Verizon iPhone: Apple's stagnation compared to Android's climb was simply a result of the iPhone's AT&T shackles, countless commenters contended. Once the iPhone hit Verizon, they theorized, Apple's mobile market share would skyrocket.

The Verizon iPhone launched in early February. We've seen numerous analyses indicating its sales did little to move Apple's smartphone market share needle. Nielsen's new data reinforces that notion -- and, just as important, suggests that all signs point to the same trend continuing in the months to come.

(I know, I know: The iPhone 5/iPhone 6/iPhone SuperDuperMagicalEdition will change everything. So will the T-Mobile/Sprint iPhone that's absolutely-definitely-positively right around the corner. Just remember: We've seen these revolutionary "wait for..." situations before. So far, the balance hasn't shifted back.)

In the end, of course, all this stuff is fun to discuss, but the only thing that really matters is what you like. Happy with Apple's mobile world? Fantastic. Prefer the Android way of life? Splendiferous. Market share stats are great for industry geeks and Wall Street freaks, but in the real world -- so long as all the contenders are doing reasonably well -- the graphs, charts, and numbers have little bearing on our day-to-day lives.

Still, it sure feels good to be able to brag.

JR Raphael is a PCWorld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. You can find him on Facebook, on Twitter, or at his geek-humor getaway:

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