Why Android's ongoing domination actually matters

First iOS, now Windows: Why you as a consumer should care about Android's endless wins in the platform wars.

Android Market Share
Jan Tik (CC BY 2.0)

It's easy to get obsessed over numbers -- especially when it comes to something as volatile as operating system market share.

(And yes, I realize that may be one of the nerdiest sentences I've ever written. I'm okay with that.)

Silly as it sounds, it's true: For anyone interested in mobile tech, watching market share numbers can be like watching a dramatic race -- one where the once-overlooked underdog is now leading the pack and leaving the former frontrunners in the dust, one by one.

It's hard to think of Android as an underdog these days, but in its infancy -- way back in the ancient era of 2008 to 2010 -- those of us who dared to look past the platform's humble start and toward the bigger picture forming around it were treated like floundering fools on the virtual town square.

Back then, you may recall, Apple was the King of Mobile™ -- the seemingly untouchable and impeccably magical leader of the smartphone world. It was laughable to even suggest that Google's meager mobile effort, still rough around the edges and with the clunky first-gen Droid as its only true breakout "hit," could ever come close to matching -- let alone exceeding -- the King's stronghold on smartphone shoppers.

Man, how things have changed -- so much, in fact, that I sound like a senile grandpa when I talk about the "good ol' days" of Android's infancy, back when no one believed it could possibly take over the rose gold throne. (Go and fetch me my slippers and some oatmeal, would ya?)

These days, of course, Android is so far ahead of everyone else in mobile market share that you can barely even call it a race anymore. According to Gartner's latest measurements, Android smartphones accounted for a whopping 81% of worldwide smartphone sales in the final quarter of 2016. Apple phones came in second, with 18%, and everyone else was basically a drop in the bucket.

Blah blah, blahblahblahblahblah. Old news. We've heard it all before. The thrill is gone.

But wait! There's a new twist to this tired old horse race. Maybe you've heard it by now: A fresh analysis from StatCounter finds Android has actually now surpassed Windows as the world's most popular operating system -- mobile or otherwise -- when it comes to global internet usage.

The firm finds that for the first time ever, Android outperformed Microsoft's mega-giant -- by a Clippy-sized hair -- with 37.93% of measured global internet activity compared to Windows' 37.91% figure. The company calls it a "milestone in technology history" and the "end of an era."

Android, Windows, iOS Market Share StatCounter

Now, let's not kid ourselves: That language is pretty damn sensational. We're talking two-hundredths of a percentage point in difference in a single month of a single company's analysis -- and mostly due to the dominance of mobile devices over desktops in Asia, at that. Despite what the data dorks quoted in StatCounter's study may tell you, this isn't exactly earth-shattering stuff.

But it is something of significance -- and not because the OS market share race should be some kind of weird team sport where we as consumers act as loyal corporate cheerleaders.

No, it matters because Android's ongoing success in sales and its now-apparent momentum in overall online activity tell us that our platform of choice is doing exceptionally well at attracting and retaining users -- and that in turn means it'll almost certainly continue to be taken seriously by the players who make up its ecosystem.

The better Android does in the big picture, the more app developers will be motivated to invest in it and make it a priority. The more people who use Android, the more hardware manufacturers will be driven to make standout devices and accessories. The companies that don't will miss out on reaching the overwhelming majority of internet-using consumers -- an increasingly difficult position to justify from a common-sense business perspective.

It's the inverse of the catch-22 that makes it virtually impossible for a new platform to catch on at this point (hi, Tizen!). And that's not even taking into account the effect having Android apps on Chromebooks is bound to have on the ecosystem over time (hint: It's gonna be a pretty big deal, even if it doesn't seem that way immediately).

The bottom line is this: When it comes to something like market share, no single statistic or study is as important as it may initially appear. But taken together as a whole, ongoing trends absolutely are meaningful -- in a way that has an indirect though very practical impact on users.

Practical impact. That, my friends, is what ultimately matters -- and that's why stats like this are significant to us as consumers.

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Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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