Unboxing data: Which devices won the holidays? - The Signal
Product Foundations

Unboxing consumer data: Which devices won the holidays?

Last edited: Oct 19, 2020
Parker Tarun


  • Pixel experienced a nice Christmas growth spurt, but it wasn’t as strong as the iPhone 7’s.
  • The iPhone 7 missed the bar set by Apple’s own iPhone 6S last Christmas.
  • The Apple Watch’s growth was not as strong as last year. Perhaps this is a correction to a trend of disinterest we see in the Apple Watch’s retention.


Apple, Google battle it out over the holidays

If you’re a TV watcher, you’d be forgiven for thinking Google’s Pixel phone was the only justifiable gift for a loved one this season. The phone splashed onto the consumer tech scene at the end of last year, determined to reclaim the standard consumer from Apple’s iPhone. Of course, Apple is never far from the minds of consumers.  Every day I walked by Apple’s Union Square location this December, it was packed. So, who tapped into the American consumer’s animus?

Comparing sheer numbers is like Apples and oranges. What might be more useful is seeing how their holiday upticks compare to normal sales and usage. Digging into billions of Mixpanel’s data points, we saw that the number of unique, active Pixels increased by 8.5% in the three days after Christmas. That’s quite the surge.

But Apple’s growth is hard to rival. Even as the new kid on the block, Pixel wasn’t able to match the iPhone 7’s buzziness. The number of unique, active users on the new Apple line increased by 12.7% the first three days after Christmas. This is perhaps more impressive when you consider that Verizon (who handled Pixel’s marketing) was the third biggest spender for television ads this holiday season and Apple didn’t even breach the top 10.

All of which is to say the rumors of Apple’s death have been greatly exaggerated. The first iPhone announcement may be 10 years old now, but that doesn’t mean the iPhone is ready to be deprecated. Apple’s latest model, the 7, experienced a 12.7% holiday uptick in usage,  which beats out Pixel’s spurt.

The downside is that it doesn’t meet Apple’s own standards. In 2015, the Christmas aftermath was a 14.1% increase in usage on iPhone 6S, a putatively smaller release. Maybe Apple’s losing momentum. Maybe people really like their headphone jacks.

In the world of mobile, the big takeaway is that the hardware war may become as hotly contested as the operating system war. In its ten years of existence, the iPhone has become the consumer gadget to beat, but this is only the beginning.

The Rise, Fall, Rise, and Probable Fall of Apple Watch

I bought my mother an Apple Watch to pair with her new iPhone this year (we’re an Apple household), so I was curious to see how Tim Cook’s second big bet was paying off. After mixed reactions in 2015, Apple doubled down on its Watch line in 2016, bundling GPS functionality, waterproof casing, and a stronger processor into the new model.

My mother was a part of the 8.9% Apple Watch uptick in the days after Christmas, and I’m sure it’s some bit of solace to Cook that his accessory watch experienced stronger holiday growth than Google’s essential phone. The Watch’s holiday growth in 2016 was weaker than 2015’s, which was a skyrocketing 18.6%. But maybe this is just a normalizing measure. That 18.6%? A bit of a fluke.

At Mixpanel, we recognize that acquisition and activation are only a small parts of the growth pie. For any product (especially those of an established consumer brand), retention is going to be the most important part. And while it’d be hard to qualify the Apple Watch a failure, its retention isn’t what you’d expect of meteoric Apple.

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Our data shows that the 2015 holiday season was flush with Apple Watches, and as we moved into 2016, many users were eager to power through their New Year resolutions. Well into May, the Watch experienced strong growth. Then, we started to see signs of attrition. Despite the strong uptick around the holidays, the bigger picture shows a market that unboxed their Apple Watches and then found them less and less compelling to use. This isn’t a great sign for a device that’s supposed to act concurrently with a smartphone, a device whose killer app is simply being alive.

For product builders, maybe this is a bearish sign for wearables. Or maybe it’s an opportunity–does anyone really know what the prime use case is for the Apple Watch? It’s hard to say. Data around the holidays is a microcosm of larger consumer tech habits, but it can also be a red herring. The Apple Watch’s activation at the end of the year tells a very different story from its retention throughout the year. All of this is a vital lesson in listening to the data when it’s voluminous, but also treating these periods with shrewdness.

One thing’s for sure: ten years after the iPhone announcement, the mobile space is getting more interesting, not less. 

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