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iOS vs. Android: Lots of stats, little clarity

Looking at an array of numbers about how Apple and Google are doing in the mobile market is fascinating--but the more data you consider, the murkier things get.

Who's winning the mobile wars--Apple's iOS or Google's Android?

It's a question that's on the minds of plenty of tech-obsessed folks' minds. But it's one that's very hard to answer--especially if you're trying to be objective rather than grasping for evidence that conveniently supports the mobile operating system you happen to be rooting for.

There are lots of metrics you can use to compare the two platforms, with new factoids arriving daily--some of them direct from Apple and Google, but more from research firms and other third parties. I decided to gather some recent competitive numbers to see if considering all of them at once helped to clarify the competitive situation.

Here they are:

Apple's iPhone 4S and Motorola's Droid Bionic.
Apple's iPhone 4S and Motorola's Droid Bionic. Apple, Motorola

Total devices in the field. At Apple'siPhone 4S launch event on October 4th, CEO Tim Cook said that the company had sold 250 million iOS devices to date--including iPhones, iPod Touches, iPads, and (I assume) current-generation Apple TVs. Shortly thereafter, Google CEO Larry Page said that 190 million Android devices had been "activated." (Google talks about units in terms of activations, not sales.) 

The first iPhone went on sale 16 months before the first Android phone, so iOS had a head start--but according to these numbers, the handful of models that Apple has released to date have still managed to outsell hundreds of Android-based gadgets.

New devices sold daily. I don't believe either Apple or Google has released information on this recently. But as of the second calendar quarter of 2011, Apple was selling around 367,000 iOS devices a day. And in June, Android honcho Andy Rubin said a half-million Android devices were being activated each day. Both figures are presumably significantly different now.

Total smartphone ownership. Comscore says that as of August, 43.7 percent of U.S. smartphone subscribers had an Android device; 27.7 percent had an iPhone. These figures don't include tablets (a category which the iPad utterly dominates) and smartphone-like media devices (a category in which the iPod Touch has almost no competition whatsoever).

Tablet sales. Research firm Strategy Analytics reported last month that the iPad had 66.6 percent of the tablet market and Android tablets had grown to 26.9 percent. But as Kevin C. Tofel of GigaOM noted, that mixes iPads that Apple has sold with Android tablets that have shipped from the manufacturer but may or may not have been bought by a consumer. If any of those Androids are sitting on store shelves, they shouldn't be compared against iPads that people have paid for and taken home.

Web usage. In August, according to Comscore, iOS devices accounted for 58.5 percent of all U.S. non-computer browser page views. Android accounted for 31.9 percent of views.

Available apps. There are more than 500,000 iOS apps, including 140,000 designed for the iPad. There are more than 250,000 Android apps, and while I haven't seen any recent data on how many are customized for Android 4.0 3.0 Honeycomb, the tablet version, I've never seen a number that was anything but tiny.

App downloads. Research firm ABI says that in the second quarter, Android overtook iOS in mobile app downloads and now has 44 percent share worldwide vs. 31 percent for iOS. On the other hand, it says that iOS beats Android in terms of downloads per user by 2-to-1. And it states that Android's installed base beats iOS's by 2.4-to-1. (How does Android besting iOS by 2.4-to-1 jibe with Apple claiming to have told 250 million iOS products and Google saying it's activated only 190 million Android ones? Beats me! Maybe ABI isn't counting iPads and/or iPod Touches.)

Profits. Canaccord Genuity says that Apple is currently scooping up 52 percent of all smartphone profits, leaving 48 percent for everyone else. Determining Google's profits from Android smartphones would be particularly gnarly, since it gives away Android. (It does, however, get to display ads on Android devices.)

Conclusions from all this? I have a few, although they're not all that conclusive:

Beware of comparing, well, apples and oranges. Contrasting the number of iPads sold with the number of Android tablets shipped seems pointless. And I'm still not sure if anyone understands the distinction between iOS devices sold and Android devices "activated."

Don't take third-party estimates as gospel. I'm not saying they can't be informative--just that you usually don't know enough about how methodical and meticulous any particular study is. The mere fact that numbers from different research firms are never identical proves that someone is wrong.

Things are moving fast. What I'd really like to know is the state of competition between iOS and Android as of mid-November 2011--based on hard numbers provided by Apple and Google. But the most recent stats are weeks or months old in most cases; both companies disclose information when they think it's to their advantage to do so, and stay mum when there seems to be no benefit in sharing anything. The data we have could be meaningfully behind the current state of affairs.

Trends matter more than any one moment in time. The numbers I've quoted here are freeze frames, but the Business Insider's Henry Blodget--a long time advocate of the notion that Android will come to dominate the market--has some graphs that show Google's operating system gaining on Apple's in some categories

Ultimately, you've got to choose a bottom-line number. Is the most successful mobile platform the one that's moving the most units right now? Fair enough, and that might be Android. Is it the one that's racking up the biggest profits? That sounds most logical to me--and that platform seems to be iOS.

Me, I love competition. Rather than hoping that iOS will fend off Android or that Android will trump iOS, I'd love to see them both thrive. That's what they're doing now. And if they're both still flourishing in a few years, it'll be great for consumers--and a strikingly different outcome from the PC wars of the 1980s and 1990s, which saw Microsoft decisively trounce Apple. Here's hoping.