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How Apple captured Gen Z in the US — and changed their social circles

Younger Americans prefer an iPhone over Android by huge margins, creating unusual pressure over how they communicate

Apple has captured Gen Z in the US so thoroughly that younger consumers fear being socially ostracised for not having an iPhone, a trend that will allow the tech giant to gain market share across multiple product categories.

Gen Z users — those born after 1996 — make up 34 per cent of all iPhone owners in the US, versus 10 per cent for Samsung, according to new data from Attain, an adtech data platform.

The figure helps to explain how the iPhone grew its overall market share of actual phone usage from 35 per cent in 2019 to 50 per cent last year, according to Counterpoint, enabling Apple to grow its profits even as the broader market stagnates.

The tech giant’s hold on younger consumers marks a significant change as market research has shown that, for older generations of Americans, there is a relatively even split between owners of devices running Android, Google’s software for mobiles, and iOS.

Shannon Cross, analyst at Credit Suisse, said the ramifications of these shifting tastes extended well beyond smartphones, as iPhone users were more likely to purchase MacBooks, Apple Watches and AirPods.

“The strength of the Apple ecosystem creates a moat that is fairly impenetrable by the competition,” Cross said. “It really makes it hard to change the trajectory. Apple is just going to continue to gain share over time.”

As Gen Z is the most online of any age group — spending up to six hours a day on their smartphones — the iPhone’s dominance is shaping the social circles of young Americans, according to researchers who advise companies on the preference of Gen Z consumers.

One oft-mentioned issue is that Android phones cannot send texts through Apple’s iMessage system, meaning that a single Android user participating in a group chat of iPhone owners turns the outbound messages of all users green, rather than blue.

This is an indication that the chat has defaulted to the SMS standard rather than iMessage. It also means when iPhone users in the group send videos or photos, they are often smaller and more glitchy than would appear through iMessage.

“A green message — anyone with an Android — throws off the entire chat, because now the whole thing has to be SMS,” said Annelise Hillman, the 24-year-old chief executive of Frontman, a men’s grooming business. “So the social pressure to get an iPhone is pretty insane.”

Kahlil Greene, a 22-year-old independent consultant and “Gen Z historian”, said the glitches were annoying enough that it was “very, very common” for Android users to be electronically ostracised from group chats.

Anastasia Pelot, a manager at YPulse, a Gen Z and Millennials researcher, said: “In the back of your mind it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I have to explain to my friends why our group chat is green now.’”

On TikTok, a trend called “He’s a 10 but . . . ” went viral when random women were asked what a perfect guy’s new rating would be once they found out he uses Android. Numerous respondents re-rate the guy at less than 5, or simply call it a deal-breaker. “If that bubble pops up green, I’m not responding,” said one.

Such issues are partly by design. Apple is focused on creating a “closed” system that encourages users to stick with the Cupertino-based company’s creations.

According to court documents in the company’s 2021 trial against Fortnite-maker Epic Games, Craig Federighi, Apple’s head of software engineering, advocated keeping iMessage off Android nearly a decade ago when other executives were considering making it available. He wrote to colleagues that expanding iMessage “would simply serve to remove an obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones”.

The propensity of Gen Z to purchase iPhones — or convince their parents to — comes even as the average price of an iPhone approaches $1,000, roughly three times the average Android device globally, according to Counterpoint.

The Gen Z preference for iPhone is more pronounced in the US than elsewhere, but when market intelligence group Canalys did research in western Europe it found 83 per cent of Apple users under 25 years of age planned to keep using iPhone. The percentage of Android users of the same age who plan to stick with Android was less than half that.

Android has sought to address the issues created by Apple’s refusal to open up its iMessage system. Last year, it ran a marketing campaign scolding Apple for not adopting Rich Communication Services, or RCS, a superior standard to SMS for rich media and attachments.

But Apple understands the exclusivity of iMessage is a selling point — and one that keeps users locked in to using its devices. At a conference last year, an iPhone user complained to chief executive Tim Cook that exchanging messages with his mother was frustrating because of iOS to Android connectivity issues. “Buy your mom an iPhone,” Cook said with a laugh.

Matt Stratford, a 26-year-old marketing specialist who owns an iPhone, Apple Watch and MacBook Air, said he would not consider an Android phone as he would lose the seamless connection among his devices.

Stratford said he did not want to be branded “the Android guy” among friends. “I know they have all these great features — they are fine phones,” he said of Android, “but when they come into contact with the iPhone or iOS ecosystem, there are glitches between the two.”

The nudge to stay within Apple’s ecosystem of devices has boosted its business. Globally, for every 100 iPhones shipped, Apple sells 26 iPads, 17 Apple Watches and 35 pairs of AirPods, according to Canalys. For Samsung, 100 smartphone shipments leads to fewer than 11 tablets, six smartwatches and six wireless earbuds.

Jakob Ledermann, Gen Z brand strategist for Philoneos, a consultancy in Munich, said he was troubled by digital natives placing such high value on a particular brand, despite them otherwise being “the most inclusive and diverse generation” to date.

“We’re not placing any values on origin, or what you’re identifying as, but we’re placing high values on operating systems,” he said.

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