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Ack. Another smartphone OS study

A never-ending stream of studies compete with each other to name the most successful smartphone operating system. But what's the point?

On Call runs every two weeks, alternating between answering reader questions and discussing hot topics in the cell phone world.

Almost every day we're presented with a new study that tracks the success of various smartphone operating systems. Like so many pre-election polls, they make grand conclusions about which OS is ahead and which is not. And like so many political reporters, industry watchers scramble to expand on the narrative.

Just yesterday, for example, the research firm GfK published a survey that asked smartphone users if they were loyal to a particular operating system. The main finding--that 56 percent of respondents said they weren't OS loyal--was a bit interesting, but the minor points--that Apple claims the most loyalty, and Microsoft the least--were nothing we haven't heard before. In other words, so what?

Kent German/CNET

Indeed, Apple often sits at the top of the loyalty heap in similar studies, but that's not surprising when you remember that most Apple fans are loyal to a fault. They enjoy exactly what Apple intended for them, mainly a comprehensive ecosystem of products that are compatible with each other and offer a similar user experience. But loyalty doesn't mean the winning company is making the best products; its just means, as the GfK study implies, that the iPhone is doing what its users want it to do. So don't read into it too much.

We also have to be careful about making conclusions from the Microsoft numbers. Though only 21 percent of respondents said they were loyal to Microsoft, we don't know which "Microsoft" they were taking about. If it's any version of Windows Mobile (6.5 or earlier), that's one thing. But if GfK threw in Windows Phone 7, then I'd cry foul. Not only has Windows Phone 7 been out for far too short a time to make a real judgment, but also mixing two such different user experiences wouldn't be fair.

Where it really goes overboard, however, is with the endless studies that slice the market share of the various operating systems. When added together, the data can be wildly disparate, making some of the information about as useful as a November 1 Nevada Senate poll. Just consider a report released today.

According to the Nielsen survey, iOS had the largest U.S. market share (27.9 percent) during October. BlackBerry was statistically tied at 27.4 percent, whereas Andorid was a bit behind with 22.7 percent. The study also found that Apple had the "most desired" OS among current smartphone owners. Thirty-five of respondents said they would buy an iPhone as their next handsets; 28 percent favored an Android device. There was more variation by age group, but you get the idea.

As with the GfK report, the first point is mildly interesting, but the second point gets problematic. Even if Apple is the most "desired" OS, what does that really say about it? And could it be that most of the people who chose the iPhone as their next device have an iPhone already? A very fair guess, I'd say. So again, draw your conclusions carefully.

In other studies, Android gets its moment of glory. A Nielsen study from October said that Android had the highest U.S. market share (37 percent) for the first eight months of this year, and BlackBerry and iOS came in second and third with 26 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Additional reports from the past few months also give Android the top spot, but by different margins.

Yet, even those conclusions aren't so shocking when you consider that Android currently runs on 44 phones on the country's six largest carriers. Apple, on the other hand, has only two handsets (the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4) on one carrier. The exclusivity is more than just the main irritant to iPhone users, it's also keeping the iPhone from reaching customers on AT&T. The advent of a possible Verizon iPhone would shake up the landscape no doubt, but right now it's a case of apples (pardon the pun) and oranges. And even if iOS is second place, that's not a bad place to be. After all, not having the largest market share in computers hasn't stopped Apple from being hugely successful.

If we had these studies once every few months, it wouldn't be so bad. But when we have them weekly, they get repetitive, boring, and serve only as fodder for fanboys and slamboys to attack each other. And at the end of the day, who really cares? These studies may tell us who's selling more phones, but they don't always tell us why. So please, pollsters, lay off the polling. At least for the next few days.