Elgan: The rise and rise (and rise) of Apple's iOS

Apple's iPhone and iPad are taking over mobile, just as mobile is taking over everything. What does it all mean?

When the first iOS gadget shipped in 2007, The New York Times' David Pogue published a list of questions about the new iPhone. The last question on the list was, "Who on earth would buy this thing?"

It's a question nobody would ask today. The phone, and Apple's other mobile devices that run the iOS, are succeeding beyond anyone's predictions. Apple says iOS is currently installed on more than 200 million devices.

Another small thing happened in 2007 that has become a big thing: Apple filed a patent request for the capacitive touch screen used by the iPhone, iPad and, in fact, by nearly all of Apple's competitors in the market. That patent was granted this week.

One possible outcome of the inevitable court cases to come is that competitors may have to pay Apple a licensing fee for every non-Apple smartphone or tablet shipped.

Since its 2007 launch, there has always been a lot of hype around the iPhone far beyond actual market share. The many brands that run the Android OS collectively own more market share both globally and in the U.S. than the iPhone does. And internationally, handsets from giants like Nokia have maintained more sales than those from Apple.

But all this appears to be changing. In the first quarter of this year, Android phone market share declined nearly 3%, while iOS's share rose by more than 12%. Android still has nearly half the smartphone market, and Apple has significantly less than that (about 30%.)

These changing fortunes could represent a temporary blip caused by Apple's availability on Verizon. Or it could be a trend.

Another possible trend is the decline and fall of Nokia. That company's smartphone handset market share dropped from 24% to 16% in one year. Apple retained a 17% share while the overall pie grew significantly.

When the iPhone shipped in 2007, nobody -- and I mean nobody -- predicted that Apple would sell more handsets worldwide than Nokia within four years.

A recent survey measuring Web traffic by various devices found that some 97% of all tablet traffic in the United States comes from iPads. And if you think that's high, the number is 100% in Japan and 99% in the U.K. (The global average is 89%.)

All these market share and traffic numbers mask a stark business reality: Apple makes vastly more money from mobile devices than its competitors do.

Firstly, Apple makes money from handsets, which Google no longer sells. Secondly, Apple makes money from apps -- far more per app than any other platform, and far more apps. For example, last year Google earned about $102 million from apps sales, while Apple raked in $1.7 billion.

Apple's iOS is even more profitable than Microsoft Windows -- 2.3 times higher.

App developers point out that iOS is easier to develop for and monetize than the Google Android platform, and presumably other competitors as well.

The success of iOS devices thus far is nothing compared with what's coming. One report says Apple has ordered two manufacturers to build enough iPhone 5 handsets to sell 15 million in the first month of sales. The new phone is expected to launch in August or September.

According to a study coming from Yankee Group next month, about 40% of all smartphone buyers in Europe said they intend to buy an iPhone the next time they purchase a phone.

A reasonably credible rumor from a blogger in China suggests that China's biggest carrier, China Mobile, will soon announce a deal to sell the iPhone 5.

The current iPhone is available in China only from the No. 2 carrier. Such an announcement would suggest a radical increase in iPhone sales in the world's largest country, which has an incredible 910 million mobile phone subscribers and where the iPhone is already very popular.

Apple currently dominates the tablet market, having sold 25 million iPads to date and possibly more than 14 million more iPads in the third quarter. But one analyst believes Apple will sell a billion of them.

OK, OK. It's clear that Apple's iOS is beyond successful, and threatens to dominate global mobile sales in the foreseeable future.

The reason this is significant is that as Apple comes to dominate mobile computing, mobile computing is increasingly dominating computing in general.

Over the next five years, we'll see more people using phones and tablets as their main computing devices. And I think we can also expect to see current desktop platforms like Mac OS X, Windows and Linux replaced by touch-friendly interfaces like iOS, Android, Metro and so on.

In other words, Apple's iOS is poised to take over mainstream computing.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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