Freight Train Kept A-Rollin’

2011 was the year of Android. A little over a year ago Andy Rubin tweeted that 300,000 Android devices were being activated each day. In January we reported that Android had surpassed iOS in terms of US smartphone market share. In June Android’s activations-per-day reached 500,000; this month they hit 700,000. That’s more than double the rate at which it was spreading when it overtook iOS.

By comparison, UBS estimated in December that Apple would sell 30 million iPhones in 4Q 2011. Sounds like a lot, until you realize that Android devices — almost all of which are phones, as Rubin’s numbers don’t include Kindle Fires or Nooks — are being activated at a rate of five million a week, or 65 million in a quarter. In other words, Android phone sales were probably close to double Apple’s during the quarter in which Apple’s flagship iPhone 4S was released. I expect Apple outsold Android at Christmas, given that they boasted this year’s three most wanted gifts, but Android will make up that difference in a few short weeks.

How did this happen? Certainly not because Android is better. Almost no one disputes that Apple’s user experience is superior. Thanks to Android’s horrific fragmentation problems, the Android version that developers write apps for – 2.2, which was released in May 2010 – is distinctly inferior to iOS 5. The iPhone 4S is a fantastic high-end phone, the 4 a terrific mid-level one, and the 3GS still a respectable player in the free-with-contract market. So why has everyone gone Android?

Partly because America is not the world. The iPhone 4S was a huge hit in the USA and the UK, but not so much in the rest of Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that prepaid (ie no-contract) mobile service is more popular in Europe than America (though that may slowly be changing) and much more popular, verging on ubiquitous, in the developing world. Right now Android pretty much owns the entire prepaid smartphone market.

But it’s not just the low end of the market, and it’s not just the availability of many different handsets. Samsung alone has sold more than ten million Galaxy S IIs, including mine. I went Android because I disapprove of Apple’s hegemonic, hermetically-sealed approach to technology, even though I think the iPhone 4S is a somewhat better phone, but that’s just me. It seems that many many millions of people genuinely prefer Android’s anarchic, fragmented, and often clumsy UX and ecosystem to Apple’s seamless sleekness. That may seem strange to some, but it has become inarguable.

And it’s just the beginning. I said this time last year, “Android will explode … in the developing world.” Now that’s finally happening. When I was in Kenya earlier this year a new US$100 Huawei Android had just become the phone of choice for Africa’s burgeoning middle class. Android has just started to go hockey-stick in Brazil — an economy that’s now bigger than the UK’s. Place your bets, ladies and gents: how long before Android activations hit a million every single day?

All of which is great news for Google. They may or may not make a pile of money off Android. What’s more important to them is that it’s an increasingly impassable moat. Bill Gurley of Benchmark Capital presciently called Android a freight train nine months ago. How right he was. Can Apple stop it? Can anyone? I doubt it, unless it somehow derails, and I just can’t see that happening. It has too much momentum on its side.

Image credit: Trans-Siberian freight train, by yours truly.