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Explaining the iOS and Android Mobile Browser Usage Disparity

by Jason Grigsby
on August 29, 2012

This article was originally published August 1, 2012 on Cloud Four’s web site.

John Gruber mused today on why there is a disparity between the marketshare of Android and its share of web traffic. He theorized that "an awful lot of Android smartphones don’t really get used as smartphones."

That may be part of the story, but I think there is better explanation, and thanks to Akamai, we have data to support it.

In June, Akamai released Akamai IO which provides us with a view of the web we’ve never had access to before. It aggregates web browsing data from Akamai’s clients.

For those unfamiliar with Akamai, they are a content delivery network that is used by many major web properties. The means that their data is likely to be a more accurate reflection of web traffic than we’ve had from other sources in the past. They see more data and the sites their clients have are the popular, mainstream sites that everyone visits.

What Akamai’s data says about mobile web browser share

Enough background, let’s take a look at some data. First, this is what Akamai shows for mobile web browser market share over the last 30 days:

Akamai graph showing Mobile Safari dominating Android over the last thirty days.

Akamai graph showing Mobile Safari dominating Android over the last thirty days. Click on map for larger image.

No real surprises here. Mobile Safari leads Android in web browsing usage by a significant margin as others have reported in the past. What gets interesting is when you look at traffic by type of connection. First up, non-cellular networks:

Akamai graph showing Mobile Safari with an even wider margin on non-cellular networks

Akamai graph showing Mobile Safari with an even wider margin on non-cellular networks. Click on map for larger image.

Again, no big surprises here. If anything, Mobile Safari’s lead over Android has increased. What about if we look at traffic on cellular networks?

Akamai graph showing parity between Mobile Safari and Android on cellular networks

Akamai graph showing parity between Mobile Safari and Android on cellular networks. Click on map for larger image.

Now that’s interesting isn’t it? iOS and Android are neck and neck when you look at web usage on cellular networks. So the question becomes not why do Android users not browse the web as much as iOS users do, but why don’t they browse the web on Wi-Fi connections?

Caveats apply

It is important to note that while Akamai’s data is better than what we’ve had before, it isn’t perfect. On the question of whether or not the data has a bias, Akamai says:

Currently, yes – most of the Web sites sampled for the Akamai IO Beta are focused on a U.S. audience. Therefore, while the data in the reports includes many visits from across the globe, it is biased in favor of U.S. clients. As we grow the sample size, we’ll no longer have this bias, and in turn be able to introduce geo-specific views of the data.

To my mind, the U.S. bias makes the difference in network usage even more striking. Many cities in America have abundant Wi-Fi locations. Why don’t Android owners use those hotspots?

Theories on why Android users don’t browse on Wi-Fi as much as iOS users

I have a couple of theories on why Android users don’t browse on Wi-Fi as much as iOS users:

    1. The UI for joining a Wi-Fi network on Android is easy to miss. iOS frequently prompts you asking if you would like to join a Wi-Fi network. The prompt to join the network takes up the screen and interrupts what you’re doing. In fact, it can be a tad annoying.

    Android, on the other hand, puts the notification as a subtle indicator in the notification bar. This is easy to miss if you’re focused on other things or if you’re a new Android user — which by the way, many Android users are because the majority of first time smartphone buyers choose Android.

    2. People at lower income levels are less likely to have access to Wi-Fi networks on a regular basis. I believe a lot of differences between iOS and Android can be attributed to income level differences between the users of the devices. Last year, Comscore published data showing that 81% of iPhone owners in the United States were above the median income level.

    I’d love to see more recent data and be able to compare it to Android, but every time I’ve seen demographic data, even if it doesn’t explicitly address income levels, it seems to hint at the fact that Android users have lower household incomes than iOS users.

    People at lower income levels are less likely to also own a computer and therefore less likely to have broadband at home. They are also less likely to work in an office setting with abundant broadband and Wi-Fi.

As an aside, I believe income level disparity also helps explain the differences in app store success. There are many factors, but demographics need to be included when people compare the platforms.

Stating the obvious

It probably goes without saying, but if you’re on a Wi-Fi network, you probably have a faster connection and you’re usually not worried about the amount of data you use. Having a faster connection and no worries about your bill increases the likelihood you will browse the web more. The friction for browsing goes down tremendously when you’re on Wi-Fi.

All we have are theories

Even with Akamai’s data, we’re still just theorizing on what is going on. But I do believe that the data provides the first clue as to what might be happening. And if Google is smart, they’ll dig into this disparity further to see if there is something that can be done to increase the likelihood that Android users will connect to Wi-Fi networks. As outsiders, we can watch these metrics to see how well Google is adapting.

Finally, I’m pleased to have an opportunity to talk about Akamai IO’s data. It’s a great service that they’ve provided. And I know they have plans to make it even better. I suspect it took a lot of work to reassure people that it was ok to publish this information.

So thank you to those inside Akamai who championed it. And for the rest of us, let’s put this data to good use.

Jason GrigsbyAbout the Author

Jason has built a renowned career championing mobile design. He co-founded Cloud Four, a mobile design and development agency, and founded Mobile Portland to educate and support Portland’s mobile community. He also co-authored a book, Head First Mobile Web. Catch him on Twitter @grigs.

Share your thoughts with us

Have you noticed a different between Android and iOS browser traffic? Share your thoughts with us at the UIE Brain Sparks blog.