Mar 08 AT 3:19 PM Anthony Domanico 75 Comments

The Q4 2011 results are in, and it paints a potentially bleak picture for Android. Looking in depth at the numbers provided by AT&T and Verizon, Apple sold about 3 times as many iPhones as all Android handsets combined in the quarter. This could simply be a fluke, as Apple released the iPhone 4S in the quarter, and Apple’s sales tend to spike in the few months after a device is released.

There are certainly some positive signs for Android in the Q4 data; the percentage of new smartphone buyers in the United States last quarter choosing Android over iPhone was 57% to Apple’s 34%, according to the NPD. Samsung sold over 300 million phones last year, with a good chunk of those being Android smartphones, and manufacturers such as Samsung, HTC, and Motorola are betting the farm on Google’s operating system.

Still, the potential for danger is there, and unless things take a turn in 2012 and 2013, then iOS may once again overtake Android as the leading smartphone platform.

The Paradox of Choice: Why too much of a good thing is not a great thing

Though the fluke effect certainly could play a role, there is at least one other explanation that could be driving sales away from Android; a phenomenon explained by Dr. Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice. If you’ve walked into any carrier store recently, you’ve certainly experienced the abundance of choices available in choosing Android smartphones.

Handset makers and carriers have gotten a bit carried away with the sheer number of devices being released, and there are simply too many Android options for consumers to make an educated decision as to which smartphone is going to end up in their pockets.

According to Dr. Schwartz, when individuals are presented with more and more choices, the negatives associated with choosing (increased time to make a decision, increased energy expended, self-doubt, anxiety, and dread) increase the stress we experience until we become overloaded.

Though some choice is good, more choice isn’t necessarily better. As a society, our satisfaction with things decreases as the number of choices available to us increases. We’ve all felt that frustration of buying a new Android smartphone, only to feel buyer’s remorse when a newer and better model was released merely months later.

We have an abundance of choices when it comes to smartphones. To demonstrate this idea, one needn’t look further than Motorola and Verizon, arguably the  worst offenders of the bunch. On Verizon’s network alone, Motorola currently offering the Droid 3, Droid X2, Droid Bionic, Droid RAZR, Droid RAZR Maxx, Droid Pro, and the Droid 4, with 6 of these 7 devices all launching over the course of a 9 month period. Adding to these offerings, Verizon sells the LG Spectrum, Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Samsung Illusion, HTC Rezound, Samsung Stratosphere, HTC Thunderbolt, LG Enlighten, LG Vortex, Pantech Breakout, Casio G’Zone Commander, HTC Rhyme, Samsung Droid Charge, Sony Xperia Play, and the HTC Droid Incredible 2.

Customers who walk into a Verizon store are presented with 21 different options for Android smartphones, and that doesn’t even count the number of customizations (16 vs 32GB options, multiple color choices, etc) offered by some of the devices. This compares to 2 models of iPhone (4 and 4s, each with a few layers of customizability), 4 different Blackberry devices, and 1 Windows Phone device.

The number of Android devices available outnumbers all other smartphone platforms by a factor of 3 to 1, though they were outsold by the iPhone by at least a few hundred thousand devices last quarter. This is despite Verizon heavily pushing their 4G LTE service, which currently only Android phones are able to take advantage of.

Adding to this problem, carrier stores are generally a big ball of disorganization, with high-end devices mixed in with entry-level phones, the iPhone generally off on its own display, and no clear signage telling people what’s what. I’ve walked into multiple carrier stores recently, and can see how easily people can get confused in these places. With confusion comes the feeling of being overwhelmed, as the choice of which smartphone to purchase is a long-term decision, with customers being locked in to that phone and cell service for multiple years.

Adding the abundance of choice problem to the disorganization in most carrier stores, one can see the potential of a problem spiraling out of control.

Who’s Buying Smartphones in the Next Few Years?

Android’s choice problem gets a bit more important when you consider the people most likely to buy a smartphone in the next several years. Though there will certainly be several folks upgrading to newer smartphones, these users are generally tied to their respective ecosystems. Several of them drop hundreds of dollars (or more) into applications that would need to be repurchased if they decided they no longer wanted an iPhone or an Android device.

The biggest potential for growth then comes from customers who still own feature phones. These laggards have largely stayed away from the smartphone market, either not wanting to complicate their lives with being connected to the internet 24/7, or they are older or technologically-averse individuals who don’t want the complications associated with learning new technology. These individuals have largely stayed away from the smartphone market, but will likely adopt the technology soon as the cost of these devices drops to the point of mass affordability. People in this category outnumber the current number of smartphone users, making this market the key to determine the market leader in smartphone OSes.

If Android doesn’t solve some of the perceived issues with the platform now, it runs the risk of losing out in this important battle for the mainstream customers.

Over the next few years, the smartphone market share battle will be waged over those customers who still own feature phones, and unless Android manufacturers change the way they do business, Google runs the risk of its Android platform on the losing end of this fight.

The Solutions

Solution 1: Remodel Carrier Stores to Provide Clearer Choices
One of the bigger problems is the sheer lack of organization (or, perceived lack of organization) in most carrier stores today. Sure, there’s a display for the iPad and iPhone, as well as one for other tablets, but when it comes to handsets, all bets are off. Phones are generally spread out throughout the rest of the store or, worse, lumped together so that all smartphones (and perhaps smartphones and featurephones) are placed side by side with little other than a little placard to tell them apart.

In a recent TED Talk, Dr. Sheena Iyengar highlights the choice issue further, and shows how businesses can make choices easier on customers by limiting the number of similar items they put on their store shelves. Though Dr. Iyengar mostly focused on retail and the number of brands of olive oil certain stores sell to customers, one can easily make the parallel to the cell phone market.

Carriers could even the playing field and help differentiate their products in an important way if they choose to lay out their stores differently. In a nutshell, carriers should section their store off into 5 different categories:

  1. High-End ($200+) Smartphones
  2. Mid-Range ($100-200) Smartphones
  3. Budget ($0-100) Smartphones
  4. Tablets
  5. Feature Phones

Placing phones into these categories would allow customers who want to purchase a smartphone to isolate their choices based on how much they’re willing to spend on a product. This will also keep the number of choices a consumer must make to below or around 10, which is approximately the number of choices we can actually rationally decide from.

Verizon is making progress here, as their new store layout somewhat splits devices off into categories. 4G/LTE smartphones have their own display sections, as do tablets. Still, though, as the number of 4G LTE smartphones explodes, we’ll likely have the same problem on our hands unless action is taken.

Solution 2: Commitment from Handset Makers to Reduce the Number of Devices Being Released
Though the carriers’ getting their organizational acts in order does much to reduce the problem, they represent only one side of issue. Handset manufacturers must also commit to reducing the number of devices they churn out in a given period of time. Ideally, instead of releasing multiple devices and hoping one is able to stick and penetrate the market, handset makers should focus their efforts on releasing no more than one entry into each of the above named categories in a 6 or 12 month period, with the possibility of releasing a 4th in the alternative form factors (slide-out QWERTY, Blackberry-like device, dual-screens, etc.).

This solution would have a dual-impact; not only will there be a more reasonable set of choices for smartphone devices, the quality of the phones being released should increase as research and development teams will be able to focus the same amount of effort on fewer devices.

Some manufacturers have already indicated that they are headed in this direction; HTC has recently announced that it will focus on quality over quantity in 2012, but have not yet given details into what that declaration entails. We hope that HTC sees the writing on the wall as well, and wants their bet on Android to continue to be successful in the long-term. HTC has taken some significant steps with the One series it launched at Mobile World Congress, and we hope these devices (and a de-cluttering of HTC Sense UI) are what HTC chooses to focus on this year.

But HTC is just one of the major players out there. Motorola, Samsung, and LG all should focus on quantity over quality, and release fewer devices in 2012. This will (should) allow these companies to spend more time and energy on UI development, and less thinking about bigger and better devices to release 3 months after their last great device (looking at you, Moto).

Final Thoughts

2012 has started off on the right track. Verizon and T-Mobile are rolling out new stores that they hope will better enhance the customer experience. We obviously hope that they take some of our suggestions and section off their stores so that they are better organized, allowing their customers to better make their phone purchasing decisions.

While HTC is leading the way in reducing the sheer number of devices available to customers, Mobile World Congress brought news of multiple new devices from the likes of LG and Huawei, and about 15 tablets from Samsung (okay, a slight exaggeration). Instead of releasing three 10″ tablets, we hope that Samsung puts all of their favorite features into one flavor of 10″ tablet and support the heck out of it. Similar too with cell phones.

Sure, choice is a good thing, and helps Android stand out from the few devices competitors offer, but when it comes to the significant (and sometimes stressful) choice about which device ends up in our pockets for too years, too much of a good thing does not amount to a great thing.

Anthony loves all things technology, from hardware to apps and games. You can connect with him via Google+ or Twitter by clicking one of the fancy doo-dads above.

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