Niche is OK--or the problem with the marketshare argument

By some estimates, Android phones have 80% of the global smartphone marketshare. iOS devices are now under 20%. It's a slaughter. Developers will surely wise up any day now and stop releasing their iOS apps first--if at all. It's time to abandon a sinking ship.

Let's recount the popular counterarguments: Developers make more money on iOS; Apple makes more money on iPhones; iOS is easier to develop for; iPhones have less fragmentation; Apple only makes a single high-end device; consumers outside of North America buy cheap, non-subsudized phones; most Android phones aren't used as smartphones; Android marketshare growth comes from people upgrading from old Nokias; in terms of absolute growth, new iPhone releases eclipse any Android device; more second smartphone buyers switch from Android to iOS than from iOS to Android.

I won't go into detail about any of these points because they've all been brought up and debated over and over again. But I'd like to suggest another angle, one that accepts that the iOS marketshare is shrinking and won't likely ever return to its global peak of around 40%. It's an argument that can be summarized in three words: Niche is OK.

In fact, it can even be great. Just look at the Mac.

The Most Important 10%

The story goes that Apple's lead was destroyed by Microsoft in the early 90s and that the Mac platform never recovered. And it's true that, even in the Jobs II era, Macs never carved out more than a high single digit share of the worldwide PC market. Even now, OS X hovers around 10%. Of course, the usual counterarguments apply here too: Apple makes fewer devices with higher profit margins than any other PC manufacturer, and has been the 2nd or 3rd biggest PC OEM for several years. But I'd like to return to that marketshare number. Because Apple may only capture 10% of all computer users out there, but what really matters to them--and what should matter to you--is that it's the most important 10% there is.

Note that I'm not talking about the most profitable 10%, although--as with iOS--there are plenty of reasons to think that this is the case. The Mac App Store is generating huge profits for Apple and for Mac developers. But what I really mean is that Mac users are simply more engaged than PC users. They buy more digital content. They download more software. They buy more accessories and add-on hardware. They follow tech rumours. They upgrade their OS when new versions come out.

And the Mac receives disproportionate support from developers. All the big names--Photoshop, Office--have been on the platform since day one. In the indie/startup world, Macs have an even healthier ecosystem than what currently exists on Windows. (Where are Alfred or Tweetbot or Windows? How about Fantastical? Reeder? OmniFocus? GarageBand?) Even relative juggernauts like Evernote release their big Mac updates first, sometimes well in advance of the PC version (e.g. Scrivener). The same situation now exists for for indie gaming: the MAS is a better platform with more exposure than Microsoft's "me-too" Windows Marketplace, and packages like the Humble Bundle sell disproportionately more copies on the Mac. The only two arenas where Macs still lag are in specialized software for industry and AAA gaming.

Why did this happen? For one thing, Apple consistently makes quality hardware and software. The Macbook Air may not at any given moment be the fastest, thinnest or most high-spec machine available, but it is still one of the most critically and financially successful personal computers ever made. The same is true, to a lesser degree, for the iMac and the MacBook Pro--and of course, for the iPhone and iPad. And Apple's greats results are just symptoms of a bigger truth--that even if only one out of every hundred new computers are Macs, each new Mac has a far more significant impact on the market than a hundred new PCs.

The Mac is in a healthier place than it's ever been. Who cares what happens to the other 90%? Journalists, artists, scientists, computer programmers, students, writers, entrepreneurs--people who make big waves uses Macs.

And if this is what happens to iOS after it settles down with a stable ~10% market share, then I can't wait.