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Mixpanel Trends: For Android’s Future, Look to the Past

Savvy Android developers already know that the international market is the next logical territory to dominate. Per our February Trends report, Latin American countries are a particularly intriguing and open opportunity, with Mexico and Brazil at the fore. But even the lowest-hanging fruit can grow on a prickly vine, and in this case the catch is the diversity of devices that run Android.

We took a look at some of the hottest markets for Android — the United States, Indonesia, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia — for further insight into how developers can optimize for a larger international audience. Data from these countries was then segmented by device, which in turn was split by pricing tier: low-end, mid-range, and high-end.

It was immediately obvious that developers have a choice between chasing a larger, price-conscious audience or a smaller, wealthier one. While targeting higher-end devices may attract more valuable customers in the long run, it might be more important to have a vast, growing user base than a small one with more spending power.

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For comparison’s sake, we first ran a report on top Android devices in the United States. For the most part, the U.S. is a known quantity: consumers have more spending power, and most people use top-tier devices (and upgrade to the latest models on a consistent basis). To that note, 80% of Android data from the United States is generated by Samsung’s two most recent Galaxy models. The lesson for developers looking to increase their clout in the U.S. is clear: continue to develop for devices with high-res screens, high-powered processing capability, and more memory.

However, when we move away from Android’s home turf, the landscape starts to shift. It’s immediately clear that targeting high-end devices isn’t necessarily an advantageous move across the board. To reach a broader audience, it pays to target cheaper, less technologically impressive devices — in most of the developing world, people use phones that have lower-resolution screens, lower processing capability, and less memory. Lower-end Samsung models, such as the Galaxy Y and Galaxy Pocket, are far more prevalent than their newer, more advanced counterparts, such as the S3 and S4 — or even the flagship device, the Galaxy S2. To reach this vast and active audience, developers will need to build for older and low-end models.

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Because Android is so customizable, plenty of devices are heavily localized. Just take a look at Mexico, where the most popular device is the Skytex Skypad. (We had to Google it, too.) This $99 device is so location-specific that only three countries have sent data to Mixpanel from Skytex Skypads in the last year: Mexico, Venezuela, and the United States. (Combined, the latter two countries send almost a negligible amount — less than 1/200th of the data generated by Mexico.) Moreover, the Skypad is a 7” tablet, further buttressing expectations that tablet penetration in emerging markets will only continue to grow. As for why tablets are so popular in emerging markets — particularly Latin American countries — one suspicion is that they’re beginning to replace desktop computers. It also bears mentioning that lower-end tablets are marketed heavily to Latin American markets; as the $99 Skypad price tag suggest, tablets are no longer a luxury item requiring significant disposable income.

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While tablet adoption hasn’t quite taken off in Brazil as it has in Mexico, device popularity is also tightly tied to region. The Samsung Galaxy Y Duos is the second-most popular device in Brazil, which is most likely due to its dual-SIM capability — devices that support two SIM cards are popular in many Latin-American countries, as they can be split between local and international calling plans. That the original Galaxy Y is so prominent in both Brazil and Mexico was an unexpected find: the Galaxy Y was originally designed for Russia, and is particularly flimsy and low-tech. But it’s also extremely affordable, which has no doubt fueled its popularity.

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Speaking of Russia, it’s interesting to observe that while the Galaxy Y is a hot device in Brazil, it isn’t seeing the same success in its original target market. The two most popular devices in Russia are a tablet (a 10” Galaxy Tab) and a slightly older Galaxy model (S3), with 25% of data coming from top-tier devices. Russian Android usage still rests on a generous 44% of low-end devices, but given Russia’s blooming middle class (and the fact that disposable income has been on the rise in the last decade), it seems likely that the number of top and middle-tier devices will only increase, and the ratio between the three tiers will start to more closely mirror Russian socioeconomic class structure.

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While phablets aren’t localized, per se, phablet activity is certainly shaped by location. Part tablet, part phone, phablets are the 21st century’s version of a mythological beast — and something of a punchline in the United States. But they’re perfect for reading and writing if your native language has a script or character-based alphabet. Sized between 5 and 7 inches, phablets are a godsend for stylus users. Take Indonesia, where phablets account for 21% of data sent to Mixpanel. While a stylus wouldn’t make writing in Bahasa Indonesian any easier, there’s a significant Javanese population in Indonesia (42%), many of whom are likely writing in script.

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In Saudi Arabia, the rationale behind phablet popularity is a bit different. While using a stylus to write Arabic may make life easier, the major push behind the phablet in this area of the world has to do with status. Phablets are luxury goods in Saudi Arabia; much like the United States, people in Saudi Arabia are up to speed with the latest device models, with 20% of data coming from Galaxy S4 phones, the latest Samsung phone out there.

So what’s the takeaway? Designing apps that depend on (and prove) the power of a platform is only applicable to high-tech economies; at the end of the day, if developers want to attract an international user base in the developing world, they should know their audience. This means looking for cultural and socioeconomic trends, and turning to low-end phones, not the speedy models of the future. It’s not about graphics, or high resolution, or screen size: for most of the world, cost is king.

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