There are now more mobile devices online than ever before – tablets, smartphones, ‘phablets’ and everything in between. With the global appetite for mobile and 4G networks rising ever faster, it’s no surprise that the range of devices being used has increased enormously. Not only are handset manufacturers churning out new devices every month, but we are also starting to see the introduction of more niche devices, as well as the proliferation of low cost Android-based Chinese manufacturers driving growth in emerging markets, especially in terms of large screen devices in Asia.
More than 5,000 unique models of device are being used to access the mobile web every day, leading to considerable fragmentation issues that makes it much harder for developers to support every platform and reach all users. They are not only faced with the decision of which mobile OS to support (iOS, Android, Windows Phone for example), but how to adapt and scale their apps for every model (taking into account factors such as screen size, graphical capabilities and available on-device sensors).
Diversity is often a good thing for consumers, but the fragmented mobile landscape is presenting new challenges for developers and marketers alike. And the problem only looks like it’s going to get worse…
An explosion of unique devices
A report published last week by Netbiscuits Mobile Analytics states that over 5,000 unique devices were tracked online in Q3 2014, an increase of 23% over Q2. The findings were based on a sample of around 1 billion page impressions per month. The findings echo data from other web analytics companies, with the consensus being that there is now a tangled web of operating systems, hardware vendors, and capabilities across all device. And according to Netbiscuits, the top five mobile devices accounted for 39% of all web traffic (a fall from 46% in Q2).
Mobiles make an impact on global web traffic
The Internet, once mainly accessed by desktop PC browsers, is increasingly catering to the growth of smartphones and tablets, which make up more than 30% of all Internet traffic (and it’s still on the rise). Responsive design is now the norm – in other words, websites that can dynamically adapt to the viewing device in terms of layout, resolution and content presented onscreen. The mobile web is often a priority for companies, above and beyond the desktop, as more consumers use mobiles as their primary means to access the Internet. This is especially true in developing markets, where mobile has leapfrogged the PC in many cases.
The Web looks fantastic on the larger screens–and it shows that more and more people really are using their mobile devices as their primary Web access device – Dan Weisbeck, CEO of Netbiscuits
The key findings in the Netbiscuits report include:
- The iPhone 5S was the world’s most used device with 13% of all traffic
- Devices with screens over 5 and up to 7 inches have doubled their overall share within the last six months
- Phablets represented 7% of all traffic at the end of April 2014, rising to 14% by the end of October
- The iPhone 6 reached 6% share of Apple smartphone traffic by the end of October
- The iPhone 6 Plus reached 2% of all iPhone traffic by the end of October
- Largest phablet traffic shares are South Korea (49%), China (25%), India (23%), Indonesia (22%), Saudi Arabia (22%) and the UAE (21%)
- Android is already over 50% of total tablet traffic in 89 of 219 countries and territories tracked
- Android’s share of tablet traffic was biggest in emerging Asia and in Central and South America, at 59% and 49% respectively
It’s interesting that despite Android’s domination of iOS in terms of smartphone sales, the iPhone 5S remains the world’s most popular device. No doubt with the launch of the iPhone 6 that will eventually change, but for the moment anyone involved with mobile web services (content, apps, websites, and such) would do well not to ignore the 4-inch screen size as it’s still going to be around for some time.
According to Weisbeck, “We expects sales of phablets to continue to grow–as more users in the base switch to the larger phablet devices, interest will grow amongst those who currently have smaller handsets,” – a prediction backed up by the increase in phablet use across much of Asia and the middle east. Mobile Industry Review recently participated in a special phablet episode of the 361Degrees podcast, which you can listen to here.
These statistics reinforce notion that the iPhone 6 Plus was launched at the right time to capitalise on the growing phablet trend. “Phablets will cannibalise potential tablet sales, so it makes sense for Apple to have waited it out for some time before pursuing this market segment”, said Weisbeck.
Netbiscuits also highlights the assault by Android on iOS’ tablet market share. Android now accounts for 38% for total tablet traffic (an increase of 6% from the previous quarter), mainly a result of cheaper Android tablets that are often discounted or given away with a smartphone purchase. It was only a year or so ago that Apple CEO Tim Cook said “I don’t know what all those Android tablets are being used for” – a nod to the then-dismal web share of Android tablets compared with the iPad.
Fragmentation issues pose serious challenges
The explosion in unique devices surfing the web means that fragmentation plays a huge part in developing and prompting apps – the lifeblood of the respective mobile ecosystems. Even though it’s easy to ignore older devices and versions of operating systems, this severely limits the addressable audience, and hence revenue. Developers often have a stark choice to make between using the latest technologies and advancements in mobile operating systems and hardware, or addressing the widest possible market.
In an effort to resolve such problems, earlier this year Google acquired Finnish firm drawElements which specialises in optimising graphics for each device. The acquisition should help the company’s goal of adapting its content and services to a wider variety of smartphones in future.
Fragmentation in Android
According to OpenSignal’s annual “Android Fragmentation” report, the type of Android devices using the OpenSignal app has increased by 58% from 11,868 last year to 18,796 in 2014. That’s a staggering figure, represented in the visualisation below.
If we look at Android’s brand fragmentation, it’s clear the Samsung is the dominant player, followed by LG, Sony, Motorola and Huawei:
Companies such as Facebook are attempting to find news ways to manage the issue of fragmentation in Android. Instead of the OS version (such as Android 5.0), they are instead relying on the actual hardware specifications of the devices (as it turns out, Facebook discovered that more than two-thirds of Android devices accessing its service have the capabilities of a typical device from 2011).
Facebook now classifies devices based on their actual performance, by determining the amount of RAM, CPU cores and clock speed, allowing it to categorise the device into a “year class” – i.e. the year that a device with those specifications would be have been considered a high-end model.
Samsung’s smartphone range
As the biggest and most important Android licensee, Samsung is guilty of releasing a glut of different models onto the market. Besides their ‘hero’ devices such as the Galaxy S range, Samsung releases a bewildering array of smartphones and tablets every year. Admittedly, many of these are just simple variations of the most popular models, customised for regional differences in networks and consumer tastes. But the company itself said it plans to axe a third of its lineup in 2015 in order to focus on its most important models.
The main factor driving Samsung’s new strategy stems from their latest financials, which suggested that Samsung’s mobile business is showing signs of a struggle – it is being edged out of the low-end segment by the likes of Xiaomi, and facing stiff competition from Apple, especially with the iPhone 6 Plus making an impact on the phablet market.
It’s fair to say that Samsung simply makes too many different models of phone:
Despite dozens of screen sizes and graphics capabilities to content with, it’s increasingly hard to create apps that utilise the vast array of sensors found on many smartphones and tablets. The graphic below illustrates the variation in sensors found in Samsung’s Galaxy S lineup:
Other than Samsung, many other smartphone companies are contributing to the ballooning range of mobiles using the web.
In 2012, HTC said they would reign in the number devices on offer, but the “less is more” ethos didn’t last long – shortly after announcing the new strategy, the company released more than 13 devices in 2012 and as many as 14 models in 2013. It seems that only Apple is capable of focusing on one or two devices per year – although that is an approach which most companies are unable to emulate.
Fragmentation in iOS
It’s impossible to talk about fragmentation in Android without considering how iOS fits into the picture. Traditionally, Apple released a single new iPhone every year, and until the iPhone 5 had resolutely stuck to it’s 3.5-inch screen size on its new models. In terms of OS adoption it was able to quickly roll out updates, ensuring that the majority of users were running the latest version. This made it extremely easy for iOS developers to focus on new hardware running an up to date version of the OS.
When the iPhone 5 and iPad were released (in 2012 and 2007 respectively), new screen sizes introduced further complications for developers, but there will still only a handful of hardware variations. Today, Apple has diversified its handset range with the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, but iOS 8 adoption has been slower in 2014 has until now been slower than previous years.
It is undeniable that iPhone and iOS fragmentation is much less of an issue than Android, a fact that has implications for all app developers. However, because Android’s market share is so huge, they are often left with little choice than to deal with multiple versions of the OS. With Android Lollipop, it’s hoped that catering to lots of different devices will be a simpler process, through better programming tools and the ability to create more dynamic, scalable user interfaces.
Creating risk and opportunity
While there are certainly risks (mainly for develops) caused by the diversity of mobile devices on the web, there are also plenty of opportunities. According to Elliotte Bowerman, Vice President of Marketing at Sourcebits, Inc: “With the endless parade of hardware choices, Android’s fragmentation is both a blessing and a curse for developers. On the one hand, the variety of Android devices has resulted in far more consumers (80% of smartphone users in aggregate). On the other hand, developing an application that works across a huge number of devices can be agonisingly frustrating and extremely expensive for testing and customer support.”
Furthermore, Netbiscuits believes that through using mobile analytics tools, developers and marketers will have a better understanding of which devices they should target:
The rise of more varied devices presents both a problem and an opportunity for marketers. It means that more care is needed to identify bounce and conversion differences by device type, as experiences vary tremendously. The days of focusing on simply the top five devices accessing your website are gone. Given that we are living in a multi-channel world, where consumers are using traditional web as well as a seemingly endless array of mobile devices, marketers have to go back to basics and get a very clear picture of how their customers behave based on both device and contextual factors. It isn’t enough to know your visitor is using Android or iOS, marketers need better information to guide this process, and Mobile Analytics are the way forward – Daniel Weisbeck, CEO, Netbiscuits
The issues surrounding fragmentation may become worse in future, but if smartphone manufacturers can reduce the number of models in their ranges and roll out operating system updates more quickly, developers will stand a better chance of creating apps that can take advantage of the latest hardware – which will ultimately benefit consumers.
Let us know in the comments below what you think about issues of fragmentation, and what is means for the mobile industry.