Why more iPhones than Android phones use public WiFi hotspots

The latest Mobile Subscriber report from Comscore shows that Google’s Android platform has grown to represent 48.6 percent of the US smartphone market.  The iPhone holds the number two spot with 29.5 percent of the market. Given that both the iPhone and most (if not all) Android phones support WiFi, you’d anticipate that you’d see more Android users connecting to WiFi hotspots in the US than iPhone users, right?

Actually, the trend is very much the opposite. Our company, Cloud Nine Media, runs free WiFi sponsorship programs for top brands like Google, Amazon and Alaska Airlines in over 5,000 US hotspots ranging from major airports to hotels to outdoor metro networks.  Through the same analytics platform we use to report on campaign performance, we can see exactly the types of devices that are getting connected on our partner networks.

Across all of our locations we consistently see more than twice as many iPhone connections than Android smartphone connections, regardless of the venue type.  Our data echoes that reported in another recent study by Comscore showing that 71 percent of iPhone users make use of WiFi compared to 32 percent of Android users.   As a whole, 32.5 percent of our connections now come from smartphones, with the remaining traffic split between laptops, tablets, e-readers, gaming devices and music players.

So what’s the deal?  Why do fewer people sign on to WiFi using their Android phones?  Are people with iPhones more likely to be under the restrictions of a limited data plan?  Is there something inherently more complicated about the WiFi sign-on process on Android phones?  Do people with iPhones just love WiFi more than Android users?

We decided to try and get to the bottom of this question by surveying 1,800 travelers connecting to WiFi across our network on both Android devices and iPhones.  We started by asking these people why exactly they were logging onto WiFi to see whether we might be able to uncover some differences in behavior.

The survey reveals there’s no difference in why Android users and iPhone users are making use of public WiFi (a quick aside: we randomized answer order when presenting the question).  The chart below lays out the reasons users gave for connecting.

wifi user survey

Perhaps the answer lies in the types of surfing activities people are engaging in after connecting to WiFi.  Do Android vs. iPhone users do different types of things online that require more or less bandwidth?

We ran a second survey, this time asking 2,100 Android/iPhone WiFi users the question “Which of the following best describes what you plan to do while connected to WiFi today?”  Top three responses, in order, suggest that people are using their free WiFi connection to ‘Check email’ (41.3%), because ‘I’m just bored’ (31.8%), and ‘Do work’ (16.5%).  A breakdown by device type is again below.

wifi user survey

A little more disparity here, with more iPhone users logging onto WiFi to check email and do work, while more Android users sign on to watch video or listen to music, or because they’re just bored.  Again, directly, this offers little insight.

So what’s the answer?  We have a few theories:

(1) The iPhone’s user interface is just more WiFi friendly

I go into a coffee shop and pull out my iPhone. Unless I’ve disabled this function, my iPhone pops up a little window to helpfully suggest that perhaps I’d like to sign on to a WiFi network.  It gives me my choices, I choose, I’m in.  It looks a little something like this:

iphone wifi

I go into the same coffee shop and pull out my Android phone and I see…the background I normally see on my Android phone plus a little ‘WiFiNotify’ bar in blue at the top (if, that is, I have previously enabled WiFi notifications, which would look like this:

android wifi

In short, although getting onto WiFi isn’t much more complicated, it does require some extra steps on an Android phone.  This simple difference may be enough to explain the discrepancy in connection volume.

With the subject of WiFi offload being such a hot topic these days, I’m firmly convinced that by making slight adjustments to the UI involved in connecting to public hotspots, Google, Apple and the carriers could literally shift hundreds of millions of dollars of data traffic from cellular networks to WiFi (probably a smart move for them).

This view mirrors findings by WiFi offload companies like Devicescape and others.  Add in some machine learning and quality control to make sure bad networks are de-prioritized and you could have a powerful tool for improving data quality and controlling costs for smartphone users.

(2) Mobile networks are not created equal

Not naming any names here, but it’s a possibility that the network traditionally behind the iPhone may sometimes not be the most robust.  The improvement on some public WiFi networks may be nominal, but on many it will be significant, and given the ease of access, it’s understandably worth a shot.

Poor mobile network connection strength may be reflected to some extent in the survey results above, which show more people logging into their iPhones to check email and do work, two tasks which, relatively-speaking, are not usually too bandwidth-intensive.

Current trends aside, with WiFi hotspot coverage expected to grow to 350 percent of its current level over the next four years, there should be plenty to go around.  Android users of the world, indulge!

* * * * * *

About the author: Sebastian Tonkin is the CEO of Cloud Nine Media, a WiFi advertising and sponsorship network.

Comments

  1. Aren’t AT&T iPhones in the US configures to automatically connect to AT&T’s WiFi network? Seeing as AT&T has a far greater number of iPhones; that could explain some of the discrepancy.

  2. Hi Daniel,

    The iPhone will automatically connect to ATT networks yes, and the discrepancy is even greater there for that reason. We are looking only at non ATT networks in this case.

    Sebastian

  3. Richard says:

    Would the lack of good RF performance (antenna & RF sensitivity) for IPhones in compare to many Android devices attibute to this difference?
    Since a worse experience and the tendency to use Wifi more often can taken a role here.

  4. Sebastian,

    When the iPhone connects automatically to an AT&T hotspot, is the user notified or made aware of this? If so, could this also condition the iPhone users to seek out non-AT&T hotspots more as well? (Assuming they know wifi is better performance?)

    Also, the first survey would suggest that when people say they don’t have 4G, what they are saying is that 802.11n is typically faster; right?

  5. @Richard – I’m not sure I understand your question. If we assume that RF performance is worse of iPhones, I would then guess they would be less likely to use WiFi rather than more likely.

    @Michael – If a user auto-associates to an AT&T network then the WiFi icon will appear, but this is a fairly subtle notification. The iPhone has a setting users can adjust that will notify the user of open networks. It may be carrier dependent, but I believe this setting is active by default, which would have a big impact on how often people connect to WiFi. People not as comfortable adjusting their settings who leave this on are frequently prompted to connect. This behavior is not typical on Android phones.

    In terms of your second question, yes this is meant to refer to connection speed.

  6. The same wifi menu pops up on both my Samsung Captivate and my HTC One X if I have wifi on and a network comes in range. So, no, the iphone interface is not “just more wifi friendly.”

  7. Actually … in our field tests … the legacy networks for Verizon and Sprint are MUCH slower than the ATT HSPA+ network. It is only recently with the advent of LTE that Verizon has better data performance than ATT.

    I think that the ease of use of the iPhone has something to do with it.

    I might also suggest that Android phones appear to occupy a different demographic than iPhones … a demographic that simply does not use their phone as a data instrument over a voice instrument as much.

  8. Ethereal says:

    Or maybe android users are just smart enough to keep their own devices from sending out their cookies across an open wifi network that anyone could could conducting a mitm attack or a cookie stealing attack on? Wifi isn’t secure, maybe the bulk of android users understand that more than the iphone users.

Speak Your Mind