It’s one of the biggest mysteries in wireless these days: More people worldwide own Android smartphones and tablets, yet iOS devices often drive the lion’s share of Web traffic from handheld devices.

For example, during the first five weeks of 2013, iOS devices drove almost 7 percent of all traffic on non-cellular networks — while Android accounted for 2 percent. That’s according to Akamai’s IO portal, which tracks usage across a variety of browser types. Another company, Net Applications, says iOS devices drove about 60 percent of mobile traffic each month over the past year.

These kinds of differences aren’t academic. Instead, they’re things that developers should keep an eye on because they affect the market for their apps. The catch is that the differences melt away or flip-flop depending on factors such as network type and device type.

For example, the disparity reverses when the devices are connected to cellular rather than WiFi. In that case, Android accounted for 23 percent of traffic, compared to 20 percent for iOS, Akamai found. iOS leads on WiFi because of  the iPad, whose owners typically forgo the cellular option.

“Out of that 7 percent of overall traffic that iOS accounted for on non-cellular networks, 4.2 percent was iPad,” says Guy Podjarny, CTO of Akamai’s Web Experience business unit. “It’s the iPad that tips the balance when you talk about browser market share, but it has a very small foothold in cellular traffic.”

Behind the Numbers of iOS vs. Android Data Usage

There’s no shortage of theories about why these differences exist. For example, some thing that vendor and operator pricing encourages people who are replacing their feature phone to buy an Android device even though they have little interest in more than voice and text. If that’s correct, then the addressable market for Android apps isn’t as large as it seems.

A related issue is that unless an operator is subsidizing the heck out of an Android smartphone, a low price often indicates mediocre hardware capabilities. That too can affect whether owners of those devices are a good fit for apps that work best when the phone has a powerful processor and lots of memory.

“While top-range Android devices are on par — and in several cases higher spec — than iPhones, there is a large amount of Android devices that are much lower spec, providing a sub-par user experience that could also affect user engagement,” says Andreas Pappas, senior analyst at VisionMobile.

The relationship between OS choices and audience engagement level also plays out overseas, but for other reasons. “Android is popular in countries where mobile broadband and even fixed broadband has low penetration (e.g., China),” Pappas says. “In these markets, access to the Internet via mobile devices can be much lower than in the U.S., preventing users from engaging with online services.”

In any part of the world, demographics can be an even bigger factor. “It is most likely that the same demographic group will have similar levels of engagement on either platform,” Pappas says. “So if you take 100 iPhone users and 100 Android users among, say, users that are industry analysts, you will probably observe, more or less, the same engagement pattern.”

That’s an example of why it can be more important to focus on the target demographic’s attributes rather than fixating on whether developing a native Android or iOS app is the best way to reach as many potential customers as possible.

“I don’t think the usage gap justifies [targeting] one over the other,” Podjarny says. “I would look at statistics around conversion percentages, how likely are iOS users to pay for something or click on an ad versus Android users, or is one platform more dramatically popular than another within your target audience.” 

Change Is the Only Constant

A mobile operating system’s market share, brand perception and app usage can change dramatically in just a year. Think back to the fall of BlackBerry and the rise of Android. So if you’re going to use information on data usage to decide, for example, which OS to develop for first, look for numbers that are no more than a couple of quarters old.

“Android is making inroads both in developed and developing markets and is no longer considered the cheaper/alternative platform,” Pappas says. “Android devices have come a long way and they offer features that are not available on the iPhone (e.g., NFC), making them the preferred choice for a lot of tech-savvy people.”

What’s more, “data usage on Android is likely to approach the levels of iPhone usage as they are increasingly being adopted by data-hungry users,” Pappas continues. “User engagement on low-cost Android devices (feature phone replacements) is likely to rise as users get up to speed with apps and better understand the use cases enabled via smartphones.”

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