Big Scientist is a new series of occasional columns which looks at popular wisdom with a scientist’s eye.
It’s called BIG Scientist because we take a big, open-minded, non-hostile attitude to all subjects, including metaphysics, theology, consciousness studies, etc.
“All physics is metaphysics,” Albert Einstein said.
The author doesn’t use test tubes, but does have a day job teaching MSc students at a science university, and works in a department with “lab” on the door.
YOU'VE SEEN THE REPORTS a thousand times. Samsung is now ahead of Apple in the smartphone wars, the media says.
I’m looking at BBC news at the moment, and there we have the same story, freshly posted: “Apple accounted for 18.8 per cent of all sales and Samsung 29.7 per cent.”
The Daily Mail has the exact same story from a different angle: Android, the system used by Samsung, has “crushed” Apple, with 79 per cent of the market against Apple’s 13 per cent, their report says.
It all seems cut and dried. The facts are stated clearly, and so are the statistics to back them up. Samsung with its Android system has beaten Apple with its iOS system into a corner.
Or is it?
White coat time!
To make a scientific review of this subject, the first thing we do is check the parameters. This is to ensure that false assumptions have not been made.
First, let’s look at iPhone versus Android. Are we comparing Apples with oranges? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that one.)
Almost immediately, alarm bells go off. The iPhone is a single product, a standard, palm-sized smartphone. Android is something completely different: an operating system that can be loaded on an infinite number of different phones from different companies.
I could start manufacturing an Android phone at my desk today. From a scientific point of view, it makes no sense to directly compare the two. The second will inevitably be bigger than the first, almost from day one. You’re comparing one brand of clothes with the entire clothing industry.
Some media writers realize this, and instead compare numbers of users of the Apple iPhone’s operating system (called iOS) with the number of users of Samsung’s operating system (called Android).
This produces a fair result, apples against apples, right?
Take a closer look and we find that these comparisons are comparing a paid-for product designed for exclusivity with a free product designed for open access and mass usage.
It’s like comparing sales figures for an expensive specialist magazine with those for a free newspaper. They are not the same thing at all.
To say one has "crushed" the other is as logical as saying that Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants have been “crushed” by McDonald’s, because more people use the latter.
Businesses do not work like this. It’s not about numbers of users. It’s about the profit function per customer.
An empirical analysis of the two products reveals that iOS and Android are quite different.
The iPhone-iOS system is a single item that grows in an evolutionary way by adaption and exaption. The generations move slowly, and show a linear progression. Each iPhone leads to the next. In general, each generation builds on the advances of the previous one. In evolutionary biology terms, the iOS is the genetic module and the iPhone can be seen as the carrier.
The Android is quite different. It’s an item carried by unrelated bodies. It’s more like a parasite, or to use a less emotive term, a vine. It has evolved to be adaptable and customizable. In evolutionary biology terms, it would show up as a tree with hundreds of branches, many growing simultaneously, side by side. Again, it is inevitable that the numbers will be bigger. Android is the general ecosystem, the cheap option for the whole jungle. Apple is the lion, sitting on a rock by itself.
What about if we review the argument in the simplest possible terms, sales of physical iPhones against sales of physical Samsung phones?
That surely must be a fair comparison?
Again, it seems to be from a distance. But when we wear our white coats and look at the parameters, we see a different story. The iPhone is fundamentally one product which grows in a linear progression, with relatively little differentiation. It’s like a person having a child, and then that child growing up to have another child, and so on. The generations all look alike.
But Samsung produces a huge range of products. There are small phones, large ones, and inbetweenie ones. There are ones with pens and ones without. There are ones with different shapes, different options, different functions, different specialisms.
The media is actually comparing the iPhone division’s single flagship product with the full range of Samsung products. The second number is naturally bigger. It almost has to be.
So how can we get a fairer, more scientific view of how the participants are doing in the smartphone wars?
We can compare Apple’s top phone, the iPhone 5, with Samsung’s top phone, the Galaxy S4.
What do we find?
Apple is significantly ahead – looking at 2013 figures, iPhone 5 has close to 50 million sales, against some 39 million for Samsung.
Another way to measure the relative success is to look at the profit margins. Again, Apple is significantly ahead.
Or we can look at the market capitalization of the firms, and what do we find? Yes, Apple is far ahead.
In fact, in virtually every way we measure the two, we find the headlines used by virtually all major media to present a picture which is the opposite of the truth.
Don't believe what the mass media tells you.
This is Big Scientist, signing off.