Narrative: Maturing Smartphone Market
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Narrative: The Maturing Smartphone Market (Jan 24, 2017)
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The Ars Technica view I’m linking to here is fairly negative on LG’s new flagship, while the Verge review also linked below is a little more positive. Both note that this is really the first widely available flagship phone to go down the “much smaller bezels” route, but while the Verge review focuses on that fact, the Ars review suggests that it will quickly be overshadowed by the Samsung Galaxy S8. The fact that this phone is launching to the public a week after the Samsung event certainly doesn’t help – almost anyone considering it has to at least be thinking about the S8 as an alternative – but until reviews are out, writing off the G6 so quickly feels premature. At least some early indications suggest that there may be one or two concerns with the S8, though I’ll withhold judgment until more thorough reviews are out. Both of these G6 reviews, though, highlight some flaws, notably some odd design choices in the hardware (poorly rounded display corners, tricky home button/sensor placement and size) and counter-productive software customizations on top of stock Android. This definitely looks like a better phone than last year’s G5, but I’m not convinced it’s going to help LG have a much better year this year than last as a result. One more thing worth noting – it seems LG has a version it’s selling in Korea with an integrated DAC which dramatically improves audio quality, but that won’t be available in the US, an odd decision.
The whole framing of this article feels very much driven by its subject, Duan Yongping, who runs the conglomerate which owns Oppo and Vivo, two of the world’s largest smartphone brands. The idea that these brands have somehow toppled Apple in China isn’t really borne out by the facts, and it appears the (unnamed) author rather took Duan’s word for it on this and other points. Apple has absolutely seen falling sales in China, but that’s as much about a saturating market and the drop-off from the huge iPhone 6 launch as about any local competitors. It’s also fairly clear that Oppo and Vivo compete in a very different segment of the market from the iPhone, though many who buy those devices plan to buy an iPhone next, per some recent Morgan Stanley research, suggesting that these are customers which aspire to buy iPhones rather than having switched from them. There’s no doubt Oppo and Vivo have achieved impressive market share in China, and therefore also globally, but it’s far less clear that their strategy is sustainable – after all, we’ve seen other Chinese brands (notably Xiaomi) do very well in the short term and then fizzle. In China in particular, the Apple brand is highly aspirational, and that will continue to drive a lot of sales.
Americans Don’t Care About Nokia (or Huawei) – PCMag (Mar 7, 2017)
This is good from Sascha Segan, explaining why “Nokia” (really HMD Global) and its new 3310 are irrelevant in the US, but also in some ways more interestingly why Huawei (and other Chinese manufacturers) have long struggled here. With Nokia/HMD, it’s a long-standing lack of investment in the unique requirements of the US market including CDMA networking technology, whereas with Huawei it’s a more complex geopolitical issue involving Huawei’s networking gear. It’s easy to dismiss the US government’s objections to Huawei equipment in networks covering US network traffic as scaremongering or protectionism, but in a previous job I heard from very reliable sources about Chinese gear (not Huawei’s) in telecoms networks which had backdoors installed – these concerns can’t just be dismissed out of hand. But even beyond that, there are significant other reasons why the Chinese brands don’t succeed here, including notably the fact that those brands simply aren’t known, and in many cases the companies aren’t doing enough to change that. The one place where some of the Chinese brands do reasonably well in the US wireless market is the prepaid segment, were several have made a decent business. But that’s much less brand- and much more price-sensitive than the much larger postpaid market.
I’ve changed the headline here to reflect two key points from the article: that Lenovo has done an about face and decided to re-enshrine the Motorola brand as the main brand for its phones globally, rather than de-emphasize it as previously planned; and that the company is doubling down on its Moto Mods concept, rather than abandoning it as LG has. The branding decision is a no-brainer: it always seemed odd to take an iconic brand like Motorola and retire it in favor of the Lenovo brand, which has far less (and less positive) recognition among smartphone buyers globally. The Mods decision is an interesting one – this article has one of the first numbers I’ve seen on how well they’re selling – it sounds like roughly half of Moto Z phones are bought with at least one Mod, which is actually a pretty decent attach rate (no pun intended). But Lenovo’s latest financial results say the Z is on track for just 3 million shipments in its first year, relative to Lenovo’s 51 million total smartphone shipments in 2016, so this flagship is still a tiny fraction of its total sales. And that’s a problem, because the rest of Lenovo’s sales haven’t been going nearly as well, and those that have been are very low-end focused. That’s not a great recipe for eventual profitability in smartphones, something that’s remained elusive for Lenovo since it bought Motorola.