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Technically Speaking: iPhone Popularity Isn’t Falling, You’re Just Reading It Wrong

First reported in CNET, a reputable technology publication, news reports foreboding iPhone’s impending demise have since been circulating. “More people are trading their iPhones in for Androids”, “New report shows that iPhone loyalty is as low as it’s ever been“, “iPhone loyalty is reportedly dropping like a rock” read the headlines.

At the centre of it all is a lone source cited by these news outlets: BankMyCell, an internet-based company that earns revenue from smartphone trade-ins.

The iPhone Xs Max. The recent wave of articles suggest Apple’s latest flagship smartphone isn’t as enticing as its Android competition. Image: Ian Ling

A common thread amongst these sources is the fact that iPhone users are switching in droves to Android phones, with the converse was not as severe. In particular, the narrative goes, the top-of-the-line iPhone XS suffers from the lowest loyalty. CNET goes on to corroborate this with research from Kantar that indicated that iOS sales in 2019 accounted for 2.4% less than in 2018.

While plain common sense easily slices through these audacious, spurious claims, a rudimentary understanding of how these “studies” are conducted further shows how much of a stretch these claims are.

BankMyCell’s summary of their findings. Image: BankMyCell

1. Sources, sources, sources

The reliability of sources is of paramount concern when examining any extreme claim made by anyone. In this furore, tech sites have all centred in on a “study” by BankMyCell, and a preliminary scan reveals several areas of limitation.

Before we even begin, BankMyCell speaks of 2019 as Apple’s worst performing year in terms of brand loyalty. 2019 hasn’t ended yet; Apple has not had any smartphone launches this year and will not have any until September. That might be a huge reason why iPhone “loyalty” is falling. That’s just irresponsible reporting.

Now we can begin. Firstly, the site has only collected data for only a few meagre months since October 2018.

From 2011 to 2019, all data points save 2019 were taken from a smattering of third-party sources. Many of the sources are also not validated or reputable. Image: BankMyCell

That means to build a comparative trend of smartphone loyalty through the years, they have gone on to use a mix of unrelated third-party sources. For fields since 2011, BankMyCell has cited everything from Statista, bgr.com, Business Insider and Constant Contact to build their graphic before appending their own one-year “research” for 2019.

That’s the second issue – the jumble of sources used to build a year-on-year picture of smartphone loyalty. It’s highly unlikely that the different sources would match up sufficiently to be presented for comparison on the same chart. Being unaffiliated, they would have gotten information through drastically different ways.

Are they limited regionally like to the US only or are they worldwide in scope? How big were their sample sizes? Were they measuring resale volumes like BankMyCell did, or did they perform consumer surveys? Do they measure by units sold, value of total units sold or deal in resale values?

The iPhone XR, which has been the brand’s budget option to date. Image: Apple

Thirdly, each of the publications in turn solely cited BankMyCell. BankMyCell isn’t known for unbiased market research, and clearly has an agenda as an online trade-in company. Audacious claims are great for virality, which is great for getting your brand name out there. Score for marketing.

Lastly, BankMyCell clearly states their information isn’t to be taken as bible truth. With a gender bias (60% toward females) and age bias (a whopping 62.4% between 18-35 years). That’s a tough sell even with a sample size of 34,785 – BankMyCell is limited to the USA, and is used by a limited group of millennials who are mostly women.

2. Hidden agenda?

I’m enough of a cynic, but my background in Economics has well convinced me that anyone can cite “data” to prove literally any point. Select the right sources, the right sampling method, the right metrics, the right method to present your “findings”, and any data trend can reflect anything you want it to.

The cover image used by BankMyCell. Clearly, they want trade-in customers to feel “savvy” and in tune with larger market “trends”. Image: BankMyCell

You’ve arguing about something and you’ve got a point to prove. You obviously only state facts that back up your claims, or otherwise feign recognition of your shortcomings. The same way, BankMyCell gets to pick and choose its cited sources without any explicit justification to build its point.

Clickbait is one thing, but it’s an important thing. The desire to gain views and virality can inspire some pretty radical headlines like “iPhone sales are the worst in years” – while barely clinging on to any modicum of truth as media outlets down the content pipeline eagerly lap up the attention from writing yet another sensational piece on the world’s most scrutinised tech company. 

Information from BankMyCell is limited to the nine months of data collected. This graph shows the monthly percentage of iPhone users who switch to iPhone, Samsung, LG and Motorola devices. Image: BankMyCell

Might as well write headlines like “Apple’s dead, here’s why”, “the iPhone 11 just got CANCELLED” and make it up with a weak disclaimer stating that your source taken alone might not tell the whole story. If the source acknowledges its dire shortcomings, why not fix them and present a more accurate picture?

In any case, BankMyPhone stands to gain from the marketing attention brought by the relentless pursuit of clickbait.

3. Confounding Factors

The timeline of the “study” introduces a whole bevy of confounding factors. Firstly, it is safe to assume that phone sales generally peak closer to their actual launch. Thus, by beginning their “study” from October 2018, BankMyPhone has missed the iPhone September iPhone Xs and Xs Max launches only capturing the iPhone XR which had not enjoyed the same popularity as its pricier sibling.

Samsung, on the other hand, had launched no less than the flagship Galaxy S10e, S10, S10+ devices, along with the Galaxy A9 Pro, A10, A20, A30, A40, A60, A70, A80, Galaxy Fold, Galaxy 5G and the S10 5G, amongst a few additional launches in 2019 alone thus far (at the time of publishing, 21 July 2019).

With such a wide range of Samsung Galaxy smartphones to choose from, it is little wonder then that BankMyPhone would have recorded more switches to Galaxy Phones from iPhones. Imagine if it were the other way around: a dozen iPhone models and a single Samsung device. It would then not be unreasonable to expect more Galaxy owners to trade-in in exchange for the latest iPhones at launch.

The Samsung Galaxy S10+, launched earlier this year. Image: Ian Ling

Furthermore, BankMyPhone had also released an earlier “study” delineating how Samsung devices held on to their value more poorly than equivalent iPhone devices. A quick scan for top of the line iPhone XS Max fetches hundreds of dollars more than the equivalent Samsung S10+ model despite being released months prior. 

That could possibly mean that iPhones retain more value on such trade-in platforms and are thus iPhone owners are more likely to use their services than Samsung owners would. If Samsung phones depreciate much faster, owners might opt to trade on alternative platforms or even retain handsets as back-up devices.

Who’s to blame?

Journalists and their editors bear a huge responsibility to their readers. Fake news is a perennial concern, but copying leads from dominant figures in the industry isn’t a guarantee of their authenticity. 

A quick browse on the topic shows most second-rate news organisations literally copying talking points from CNET; CNET itself does little to refine bullet points provided by “study” in exchange for a snappy, clickable, potentially viral headline.

To be clear: BankMyCell is not at all at fault here. They have in their means the ability to collate a reasonably large sample of resale figures, albeit across a very limited time frame.

However, they chose an extremely poor time to conclude these findings – without even waiting for a full year to smoothen the staggered device launches. This brings into question the validity of the study as a whole.

They’ve done a smashing job, though. Clearly, even the most reputable tech publications the world over have swallowed their narrative – hook, line and sinker.

Ian Ling
Ian is the resident Tech Monkey and Head of Content at VR Zone. His training in Economics and Political Science is at the basis of his love for journalism and storytelling. A photographer by passion, and an audiophile by obsession, Ian is captivated by all forms of tech that makes enthusiasts tick.

One thought on “Technically Speaking: iPhone Popularity Isn’t Falling, You’re Just Reading It Wrong

  1. HChen

    I am people who read tech news frequently, will know the type of news that are created merely to ‘sensationalize’ things instead of something worth investing the time and thoughts in. That article at Cnet was one of those. However your response, though nothing wrong, was a full article on it. Now that got me thinking, if there are articles (there will always be) that is meant to sensationalize certain things that are inappropriate to Android devices, or specifically Samsung devices, will you dedicate an entire article to highlight and analyze it’s inaccuracies? Will you? (I wonder….I really wonder…)

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