Narrative: Maturing Smartphone Market
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Narrative: The Maturing Smartphone Market (Jan 24, 2017)
Written: January 24, 2017
The modern smartphone market came into existence with the iPhone in 2007, and has rapidly expanded since then thanks to both the growth of the iPhone itself and the rapid rise of Android starting shortly afterwards. However, that market is now beginning to mature in at least a couple of different ways, making life more difficult for the major vendors, especially those targeting mostly mature markets.
The smartphone market is maturing in two main ways. Firstly, it’s reaching saturation in major mature markets, where penetration rates are in the 80s or 90s among the addressable population and growth has slowed or even stopped. Secondly, the devices themselves are maturing, in that the underlying technologies are very solid at this point, with most innovation occurring at an incremental level at the edges rather than pushing the devices from unacceptable to acceptable performance in core areas. Both of these factors are causing slowing and even declining sales of smartphones, as there are fewer first time buyers and existing owners feel less of a need to upgrade their devices rapidly. The shift from subsidy to installment models for buying smartphones through carriers in markets like the US is another driver of slower upgrade cycles.
In this context, major vendors, especially those targeting the premium segment, are faced with a significant challenge: there simply aren’t as many smartphone sales as there were, and so growing sales requires growing share. Obviously, every vendor can’t grow share, so this means increasing power in the hands of a few big vendors while others gradually get squeezed out. In mature markets, that means Apple and Samsung snapping up much of the premium market between them while other players fight over table scraps at medium and low price points.
This in turn forces a bifurcation between those smartphone brands able to command a premium and take meaningful share at the high end through strong differentiation, and those who are forced to differentiate largely through price or value at the lower end of the market. Companies that attempt to straddle these two or which try to fall somewhere in the middle won’t last long, and even many of those that pursue one or other of those opportunities will fail. Most of the big Android vendors from five to seven years ago are now faced with this quandary, and few are finding a way out of it. Samsung is the main exception, while Sony appears to be finding a smaller but potentially profitable niche as a fairly low scale premium vendor. LG, HTC, Lenovo/Motorola, and others are still struggling to find a place in the market, while newer Chinese vendors gobble up share and leave less and less market for them to fight over. A shakeout is likely coming, though few of the struggling vendors seems willing to give up the fight just yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some bankruptcies, exits, and/or acquisitions in the next couple of years among these mid-tier vendors.
Meanwhile, at the high end, we’re likely to see more diversification, as premium vendors seek to fill every available niche within their addressable markets. We’ve already seen Apple pursue this strategy with its iPhone line, which has gone from a single model to three in recent years and promises to split even further in 2017, while Samsung has split its Galaxy S line in two while also pursuing the Note strategy. Modular approaches from Motorola and LG have attempted to solve the same problem in a different way and fallen short, while Google’s ill-fated Ara experiment never even made it off the ground. We’ll see more experimentation with new form factors, displays, and other features, but ultimately the companies with the best ecosystems and not the most gimmicky hardware, will win out.
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.
Apple and SAP today announced that the partnership they first unveiled last year is beginning to bear real fruit. Last year, they had announced plans for an SDK, a training academy, and some sample apps from SAP itself designed to show third party developers what could be done. All of those things have now made enough progress at this point to justify a second announcement about imminent launches and progress made since. Several of the elements of what the companies announced originally are going to be available in the next few weeks, and all that should help SAP’s enterprise customers and their partners develop better iOS apps that tap into the SAP back-end. This is part of Apple’s broader push into the enterprise over the last few years, something that’s critical for squeezing additional growth out of an increasingly saturated smartphone market in mature economies. But it’s also a good reminder that the announcements Apple makes in the enterprise space are very different from its usual product announcements – they’ll take at least months to come to fruition, and in many cases will take even longer after that to deliver really meaningful results – this is a long game.
via Mac Rumors
After last year’s largely unsuccessful focus on modularity, it looks like LG has gone back the other way, with a really solid, slab-like phone that trades removable items for dust and water resistance. We’ve seen phone makers go for durability as a selling point before, sometimes in a core model and sometimes in a rugged variant (Samsung favors the latter), and it’s rarely enough to act as a big differentiator, especially in a premium phone. But it looks like LG is also majoring on the combination of a really big, high-res screen with small bezels and better one-handed use. It’s always interesting to watch the pendulum swing back and forth between masses of clever features and simplicity with the Android vendors, and we’re seeing that here. I’m betting this phone does better than the G5 last year, but LG continues to be in a tough spot in smartphones – it’s losing money every quarter, sales are falling, and it’s stuck in that unfortunate middle within the Android ecosystem where it’s neither at big scale in premium devices nor price competitive enough to do really well in the mid market. I don’t see this phone dramatically changing its fortunes.
I think this headline from the Verge captures my sentiments on this phone pretty well. I have covered BlackBerry as a company pretty closely in the past, and still do to some extent, and whenever I write about them or post charts on Twitter, the first response I almost always get is “I though they went out of business”. The reality is that BlackBerry has dropped so far out of the public consciousness in what were once their biggest markets that a phone like this at this point isn’t really going to get them anywhere. The moment for this phone was years ago, not today, and at this price ($549) it’s not an option for the markets where the BlackBerry brand still means something to consumers, like Indonesia. So many of even those who once insisted on a physical keyboard have now caved to the inevitability of the full touch screen, and the vast majority of those won’t go back now they’ve discovered apps, content stores, and everything else modern smartphones have to offer and BlackBerry devices have never really been able to. At least now the risk is mostly on TCL’s books rather than BlackBerry’s, and the reality is that the hardware business at BlackBerry is so small now (under $100 million in the November 2016 quarter) that this is almost all upside for the company – if TCL doesn’t sell any, that’s more or less a continuation of the tiny hardware revenue BlackBerry has been booking, and if it sells a few hundred thousand, that’s useful additional revenue. But this is very likely to be a tiny overall revenue opportunity for both companies, and I’m curious to see how long TCL sticks with the partnership.
I cited some Counterpoint data on India the other day, and in that context said that they do a good job with these non-Western markets – these numbers are solid, although it’s interesting to see these results for China come out before Apple and several other companies have reported their results for the fourth quarter. Unlike India, China is a major contributor to Apple’s overall results, and there’s usually lots of commentary about the rate of growth there, so it’ll be interesting to compere these numbers with what Apple releases next week. In the meantime, there’s lot of interesting stuff here – over the full year, Xiaomi and Apple fared poorly out of the major vendors, though Apple’s Q4 sales held up a lot better than in Q1-Q3. Lenovo’s year in China was a disaster, and it will be very grateful once again that it has Motorola in the rest of the world to buoy things up a bit. The big story is Oppo and Vivo, which have broken into the top rankings globally off the back of a strong showing in China, but Huawei also did very well. It’s also interesting to look at the data in here on individual models, where the two iPhone 6s variants both score in the top 10, and two Oppo phones are in the top 5, including the number 1 slot. The whole post is well worth a read if you’re interested in the Chinese market.
This piece suggests falling ASPs due to iPhone buyers plumping for older models like the 6S rather than the new iPhone 7 models, but only quotes one analyst at Barclays to back up the claim. We’ll know soon enough what the ASP numbers for the December quarter look like, but they did fall this past year relative to the year earlier, in part because of the iPhone SE launch. It’s certainly also true that people are hanging onto phones longer, because they’re more capable, and that new installment plans from US carriers make the price of phones more transparent than the old subsidy model, and reduce the monthly cost once a phone is paid off. For all these reasons, I’m definitely seeing longer upgrade cycles for smartphones, but I see very little evidence that people are buying older phones new – in fact, all my conversations with carriers suggest the opposite – moving from an upfront cost to a monthly cost is driving people to higher-priced phones. In addition, the mix between the 7 and 7 Plus looks to have moved in favor of the larger device relative to earlier models, and that and interest in the jet black finish will also drive up ASPs. Color me skeptical at this point.
Evan Blass, who used to publish leaks anonymously under the pseudonym Evleaks and has a great track record of accurate reporting, claims these are pictures of the forthcoming Samsung Galaxy S8. The main changes are a full screen front, with the fingerprint sensor moved to the back, while charging switches from micro USB to USB-C, and Samsung retains the headphone jack. The smaller bezel approach has been widely rumored for the next iPhone this fall, and I think what we’re seeing here to some extent is the same rush into smartwatches in the year or two before the Apple Watch emerged, driven by rumors of where Apple was going. In the smartwatch category, we saw a variety of failed attempts to create something compelling only for the Apple Watch to dominate the market when it launched, and you always have to wonder with this pre-emptive following whether competitors will really be able to crack the concept in a way that’s as compelling as whatever Apple releases. Xiaomi already has an essentially bezel-less phone, LG is reported to be moving in that direction, and now Samsung supposedly is too. It’ll be very interesting to see how this space looks at the end of the year once all these phones (including a new iPhone) are on the market.