Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Customers want control over their mobile device

Disclaimer: I'm a Google employee.

"The average consumer doesn't care about whether their mobile device is locked down"

I've heard this argument very often. However, the data just doesn't support it. Over the last week, the hacker group evasi0n released a program to jailbreak an iOS device. iOS devices (iPhones and iPads) are closed down: Apple chooses which programs can be installed by device owners. A jailbreak removes this restriction, and allows the device owner to install any program of their choice on their device.

The initial justification for such unprecedented control was that the phone network could not handle poorly written applications. This argument was bogus even when the iPhone came out. At that time, arbitrary applications could be executed on existing phones. Palm Treo and Blackberry both allowed the device owner to choose which applications to run. Not all applications were passed through careful scrutiny: the device owner could write his own application and run it on the device. With the advent of Android, this argument is even more hollow. Google sells Android devices on which the user can not just install any application, but also install any system software.

Other justifications claim that users want a third-party to control their experience and are willing to submit control of their own devices. The data suggests otherwise. The hack by evasi0n was downloaded by four million unique devices in just five days. We don't have any concrete numbers for iOS 6.x devices, but let's try to use people's estimates to arrive at how significant the five million figure is.

Apple announced the number of iOS devices in October 2011: 250 Million.
Rough numbers for devices runing iOS version 6.x: 100 Million.

So 5% of the total user base chose to jailbreak their device within the first four days. There are lots of caveats: the figures are all guess-work (the fact that the numbers are nice round figures should also make you suspicious). We don't know the exact number of 6.x devices, and Jay Freeman, the creator of Cydia, admits that many jailbreakers weren't counted because the jailbreak servers crumbled under the heavy load.

Even so, 5% of the users want control over their own device. And that's within a week of the jailbreak being available. A very conservative estimate is that another 5 million users jailbreak their device. So 10% of the users choose to control their own device. (This is again a rough guess, since total iOS version 6.x devices is a moving target.)

Keep in mind that the entire idea of a jailbreak is somewhat scary. I suspect most users would hesitate to download a program from an unknown website and run it on a costly phone or tablet. Put another way, the number of users who want to jailbreak their device is larger than the ones that do perform the jailbreak.

When one in ten of your users wants something, it isn't a fringe phenomenon anymore. They are sending you a strong message: that they want control over their own device.