I have a problem with terms that are not clearly defined. Words like “much”, “a lot” or as in this case: “unbelievably high”. If you argue that the problem with Android is its high piracy rate based on one developer’s subjective statement and general hearsay, it’s not an argument.
Before I get to debunk why piracy can’t be that big an issue for Android developers, allow me to restate which developers regularly complain about piracy to begin with. There always seems to be the issue that low selling apps see a much larger percentage of pirated copies being used than high volume apps. This is because some pirates download and try out almost everything that’s available just because they can.
Interestingly, the badly selling app developers seem to be those who complain the most about piracy. Because it’s so easy to blame a failure to sell on piracy. See this fictive graph:
Piracy Rates vs Install Base
Based on the numbers published in the Xbox Insider book, and comparing that with the numbers of banned Xbox 360′s at one time vs the installed base, we know that the number of “jailbroken” (flashed) Xboxes was said to be 3% and for Xbox 360 the percentage is still below 5% according to my estimates. So the “hack rate” remained surprisingly constant over two console generations, even though the hacking and banning procedures were very different and actually easier to do on the old Xbox. This is interesting because to this date flashing your Xbox requires opening it, or paying someone to do it for you. So let’s extrapolate that at most 5% of users are willing or able to somehow hack their device if it requires opening the hardware or paying someone to do it.
iPhone jailbreaks are software-based and therefore easier to do for the everyday user. The highest estimate from an older article puts the number of jailbroken iPhones to as much as 10%. That’s on the high end. While flashing the Xbox is done mainly to run pirated games (running gag: they’re called backups) whereas jailbreaking has indeed other arguments and uses going for it, such as tweaking the device’s user interface, adding true multitasking, direct file transfer and what not.
The defunct PinchMedia once reported that only 38% of jailbroken iPhones had run at least one pirated app. This article is lost unfortunately. They also stated this number is on the low end. If we use this as basis and their statement that this number seems low, then let’s assume that two thirds (66%) of jailbroken devices did indeed run at least one pirated app. This would reduce the number of iOS devices on which pirated apps are used down from 10% to about 6-7%. In other words: Jailbreak does not equal Piracy.
Now even if we assume a “unbelievably high” number of illegal app usage on Android devices (most don’t even require “jailbreaking”) by saying the piracy rate is double or even four times that of the iPhone – then at most we’ll get to about a quarter of Android devices where users have run pirated apps (at least once). This can’t be the primary issue for Android developers.
The real issue is not selling to the remaining three quarters of legit Android device users.
Keep in mind that I’m already totally exaggerating here with a 25% piracy rate. And it doesn’t even count in the factor that of those 25% only a fraction are a total loss to the market, pirating every app they use. So even if the Android market were simply 25% smaller than it (supposedly) is, it would still be a gigantic market and far greater than the iOS market in absolute numbers.
This becomes even clearer if you consider the latest numbers putting the number of Android devices to around 400 million. This is a 59% market share of all mobile devices. The iOS devices only amount to 23% market share. So for every iOS device there are 2.5 Android devices. Even if the piracy rate on Android would be “unbelievably high” developers should still see at least similar revenues coming from both markets. But alas, they’re not. Android sales frequently lag behind iOS sales.
Most report better revenues from the iOS market, with often reported ratios ranging anywhere between 60:40 to 80:20. Only few cases report a balanced 50:50 ratio or even slightly better revenue on Android, but that seems to be only the case if you derive most or all of the revenue from Ads.
Care to consider Cydia?
Now one argument for Android piracy is that it’s built-in. Download app, drag it to your device, activate or register it. It’s not necessary to jailbreak (or root) most Android devices. The problem with that argument is that even on iOS it takes minimal effort to initiate a jailbreak. And it’s well documented too, there are even “for dummies” videos explaining things in detail so even Grandma could do it. And once that’s done, iOS users gain access to Cydia.
Cydia is like a subculture alternative to Apple’s App Store. Downloading apps and transferring them to your device is easier than the more manual process for installing illegal apps on Android devices. Convenience is the driving factor in continued use of pirated apps or other media. The less convenient the process is, and the more time it takes to perform the tasks, the more the person will become selective in performing these steps.
Jailbreaking is not a huge hurdle to overcome for iOS users to start pirating apps, except for when there’s a new iOS version that doesn’t have a jailbreak yet. Potential pirates may be more likely to buy an Android device because it seems initially easier to use pirated apps. But on the other hand, even pirates are interested in having a large selection of apps, and some great apps not available for Android. In that light, the initial jailbreak required for iOS devices doesn’t seem like much of a hurdle to overcome.
Since pirates are the resourceful types, it can be argued that neither the openness of Android is overly inviting them in nor does the current iOS jailbreak process put them off from buying iOS devices. The issue then boils down to casual pirates who may or may not be more likely to use pirated apps on Android just because you can simply “give it a try” with no harm done – but are casual pirates really that much of an issue?
The many more problems with Android
There are many suggestions, and I believe all of them have to be factored in to some extent. Here are some of the more common arguments, and some actually do apply on iOS as well, although usually to a lesser degree:
- Many Android devices are sold cheaply. Therefore they appeal more to cost-sensitive customers who simply won’t (can’t) spend as much on apps.
- Android smartphones are entry-level smartphones. Usually customers pick the Android device because it comes with their contract and is cheaper than even the entry level iPhone. So you get a lot of buyers who aren’t really smartphone users but primarily mobile phone users. Their usage pattern is: phone, SMS, photos, Facebook.
- The Android market compared to iOS has a higher percentage of crappy apps, apps devoid of meaning, apps trying to trick you into buying them and you have to worry more about potential security risks. Overall perception of app quality is lower among Android customers. All of this deters customers from buying Android apps.
- The device fragmentation is not just an issue for developers. Users notice the issue as well where apps don’t run as well or don’t seem to be well adapted to their device. Again this adds to perceived low app quality.
- As with any App Store, most users simply buy the apps that have been recommended by others or are in the media. This effect may be more significant in a market that has a greater percentage of apps you don’t really want to waste time or money on. This might suggest that Android users are more selective or not as aware of apps they might like. The issue being discoverability.
- Most apps don’t run on all devices, therefore limiting the addressable market. Yet developers are keen to look on absolute numbers, like the 400 million devices. In conversation, this point is often lost or not considered. If your addressable market is 2 million because your app is only capable of running on this many Android devices, then selling 20,000 copies (1%) can be considered a success, not necessarily a failure.
- Piracy may be a larger issue for Android than iOS. But to what extent no one really knows. The larger number of piracy rates seen on Android may simply reflect the ubiquity of Android devices and that many cheap Android devices point to users with less disposable income to begin with. The iOS market certainly doesn’t boast a low piracy rate either.
- User demographics for iOS and Android users are very, very different. One can’t expect to sell the same stuff to different people equally well.
- Some Android users are very much pro Open Source and/or against closed systems like Apple’s. Therefore they chose to go with an Android device mainly because it represents their world view. The affinity towards piracy in that group may also tend to be higher.
- Being cheaper devices and considering the disastrous OS upgrade policy thus far, Android devices are becoming obsolete at a greater rate than iOS devices. This means that the relative number of Android devices that are currently being used – in the sense of the user being interested to buy new apps – may be much lower than on iOS and definitely much lower than the 400 million devices sold. Also, customers are less inclined to invest in their device if it may become obsolete soon or if they value it less.
- The Android Marketplace is not as integrated with its devices compared to how iTunes is used to connect with iOS devices. That means users are not as exposed to (new) apps. Specialized synching and file transfer tools bypass the Android Store / Google Play entirely. There’s a reason why Apple wants you to open iTunes to do practically anything with your devices (except for downloading camera images and videos). It may be annoying sometimes, but it does get more people to browse and buy apps in the App Store.
Overall, the Android long tail market is much, much more difficult to address than iOS. If you have an iOS hit, you’d be foolish not to publish on Android because the hype will follow you over to Android. But until then, the Android market is simply not that interesting as a market for app developers. Fragmentation, customer demographics, App Store design, perceived quality of devices and apps, and piracy all play a role and not a single issue can really be picked out. Given the severity of all the other issues, I argue that piracy is really at the bottom end of the list.
What really is the issue with Android?
The real trouble with Android is that it’s much harder to define and reach your serviceable addressable market and your target audience, both in selling your app and in marketing your app to potential customers.
It is also a perception problem: since there’s more Android devices, there have to be more potential customers, so Android must be a huge market despite the device fragmentation – right? But this expectation is naive and can only lead to disappointment. And then it’s all too easy to blame it on piracy, because pirates always try out a lot more apps than the regular user simply because they get them for free. Naive expectations are then replaced by naive thinking:
Piracy – pi·ra·cy (pr-s) – 1. The one-stop, liability-free conclusion for when your digital product fails to sell to expectations.
Android has about 2.5 times more devices sold than iOS but everything points to there being significantly fewer potential customers for app developers, piracy or not. And it’s harder to reach out and convince each of them to buy your app, too! If it weren’t for the iOS market, we’d probably all be thinking that Android is a reasonably difficult but fairly encouraging mobile market to be in, and definitely much better than any mobile markets that came before it.
The Android market is a very difficult market because of its diversity on all levels. Piracy is only one of the problems, and a small one if you imagine that maybe you had sold anywhere between 10% to 20% more copies of your app. Does that make a big difference? Is that the tipping point between your app’s success or failure? I don’t think so. You may be seeing a larger percentage of pirated app users, but in this case check the image I posted earlier. Your problem aren’t the pirates, it’s that you sold low volumes of your app to begin with.
The much bigger issues for terrible Android app sales (assuming a reasonably good quality app and reasonable marketing) are lack of App Store integration, lagging system updates, the “lower quality” aspects, the device fragmentation, and most importantly: user demographics and behavior. And we know that Android users are simply not as willing to pay for apps.
That, and of course your app. If your app lacks in quality, if it doesn’t fill a niche, if it doesn’t gel with your audience, if it doesn’t create interest, if it isn’t marketed well – it’s prone to be a failure. And that’s just something you have to deal with. Learn from your mistakes, from the things that went right and wrong and then try again. Don’t blame it on piracy, that’s just a lame excuse not to learn your lessons.
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