Android apostates account for 1-in-5 U.S. iPhone sales

Apple CEO Tim Cook may have tapped Android "switchers" as part of the reason for the boffo iPhone sales, but a most lived outside the U.S.

Apple CEO Tim Cook may have tapped Android "switchers" as part of the reason for the boffo iPhone sales last quarter, but a survey implied that most of those defectors lived outside the U.S.

The same poll illustrated that in the U.S. iPhones are increasingly sold to current Apple customers.

Earlier this week, as Cook called the quarter "staggering" and "hard to comprehend," he said that the "switcher rate" -- the proportion of first-time iPhone buyers deserting Google's Android -- was higher than the previous three cycles.

"The current iPhone line-up experienced the highest Android switcher rate in any of the last three launches in the three previous years," said Cook on Tuesday during an earnings call with Wall Street. "And we didn't look back to the other years. So I don't know about those."

Apple sold a record 74.5 million iPhones in the three months that ended Dec. 31, easily beating even the most optimistic estimates, and fueling a single-quarter revenue record of $74.6 billion.

But according to Chicago-based Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP), the U.S. Android-to-iOS switcher rate, while higher for the latest round (iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus) than its immediate predecessor (iPhone 5C, iPhone 5S), was not out of whack with the U.S. track record of the last 10 quarters.

In the fourth quarter, 19% of U.S. iPhone customers polled by CIRP said that they had switched from an Android phone, the research firm said today. That was about mid-way in the usual range of 16% to 26%. "Apple gets a nice bump from Android users every launch, but it's not a hockey stick [line on the chart]," said Mike Levin, partner at and co-founder of CIRP, in an interview. "OS loyalty tends to be pretty strong [and] the Android switching rate has remained relatively consistent."

In the previous two post-launch quarters -- after Apple shipped new iPhones in 2012 and 2013 -- the switcher percentage was 19% (after the iPhone 5 release) and 16% (after the iPhone 5C/5S debuts), respectively, said CIRP.

Both were well within the usual 16%-26% range, but Mike Levin, partner at and co-founder of CIRP, said it's typical that in even-numbered years, when Apple revamps the exterior design of the iPhone, more Android users switch to iOS.

"There are slightly different sets of factors each year, and OS loyalty gets rewritten," Levin said in a Thursday interview.

But the relatively low percentage of Android switchers, even after the debut of the iPhone 6 Plus, contradicted Cook's theory that disloyalists were responsible for the fourth-quarter boom, at least in the U.S.

"This week, Apple emphasized the international strength of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus launch, so it appears that Apple enjoyed a much higher rate of Android switching outside the U.S. than in the more mature U.S. market," Levin said.

Levin said he was not surprised that, in the U.S. at least, Apple didn't grab more Android switchers on the back of the 5.5-in. iPhone 6 Plus, the Cupertino, Calif. company's first so-called "phablet."

"The 6 Plus did really well in the U.S. -- we said that about 30% of all new iPhones sold [in the fourth quarter in the U.S.] were the 6 Plus -- but it's not clear if those people switched from another phablet or were part of the normal upgrade," said Levin. "Consumers are most loyal to their carrier; it's in the 80% to 90% range. After that, loyalty to the OS is strongest, then loyalty to the brand."

Levin said he expects the Android switching rate to climb in the current quarter, however, because as time goes by, more Android owners exhaust their carrier contracts and so become potential deserters to iOS.

During the Tuesday earning call, Cook made it clear that he believed there was still substantial upside to the iPhone, the huge sales in the past quarter notwithstanding. "We are incredibly bullish about iPhone going forward," Cook said, citing the small size of the upgrade so far -- no more than 15% of the existing iPhone user base -- and a record in the quarter for the percentage of those new to the iPhone.

But according to Levin, Apple has almost exhausted some of the consumer categories that have historically been part of what fueled U.S. iPhone sales. CIRP has seen a steady decline in the share coming from Blackberry owners as the Canadian firm's market evaporates, and a decline in those moving from a "feature" phone to a smartphone. The latter continues to shrink as well.

That has resulted in an ever-increasing share of iPhone sales attributed to upgraders who had an older iPhone. CIRP's trend line showed that while previous iPhone owners accounted for just over 40% as recently as mid-2013, by the final quarter of 2014 the number was around 70%.

"Apple still has plenty of prospective customers for the iPhone, but they're running out of basic [feature] phone owners," said Levin. "Their challenge has been, and will continue to be, trying to pick up Android owners."

That's no small task, as Android smartphone owners are, as a group, loyal to that OS and ensuing ecosystem. "Android loyalty has been up as well," said Levin. "It's lower than iOS's, but it's also trending up."

Levin declined to share exact statistics on iOS-to-Android switching, but in a follow-up email said that the percentage who dump an iPhone and buy an Android smartphone is about half that of the reverse. "So, in the past few quarters, iOS has gained more from Android than Android has gained from iOS," Levin said.

CIRP's data came from a survey it did this month of 500 U.S. customers who had bought an iPhone in preceding quarter.

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