Richard Kramer

Demolition Derby in Devices: The roller-coaster ride is on

Demolition Derby in Devices: The roller-coaster ride is on

[The economic realities will lead to a roller-coaster ride that will shake up the mobile industry. Guest blogger Richard Kramer talks about the impending price war, the implications for industry growth, and how this will alter the landscape of device vendors in the next decade]

With all the discussion of technology trends on the blogosphere, there are some harsh economic realities creeping up on the handset space. The collective efforts of vendors to deliver great products will lead to an all-out smash-up for market share, bringing steep declines in pricing.

In November 2009 I wrote a note about what Arete saw as the impending dynamics of the mobile device market. I called it Demolition Derby. This followed on from a piece called Clash of the Titans, about how the PC and Handset worlds were colliding, brought together by common software platforms and adopting common chipset architectures. As handsets morphed into connected devices, it opened the door for computing industry players, now flooding in.

New categories of non-phone devices
A USB modem/datacard market of 70m units in 2009 should counted as an extra third of the smartphone market, as it connected a range of computing devices. By the end of 2010, I believe there will be many new categories of non-phone mobile devices to track (datacards, embedded PCs, tablets, etc.), and they may be equal to high-end smartphone market in units in 2011.  Having looked at the roadmaps of nearly every established and wannabe vendor in the mobile device space, I cannot recall a period in the past 15 years of covering the device market with so many credible vendors, most with their best product portfolios ever, tossing their hats in the ring.  I see three things happening because of this:

 

1. First, a brutal price war is coming. This will affect nearly every segment of the mobile device market. Anyone who thinks they are insulated from this price war is simply deluded. I have lost count of the number of vendors planning to offer a touch-screen slim mono-bloc Android device for H2 2010. The only thing that will set all these devices apart will be brand, and in the end, price.  Chipmakers – the canaries in the handset coal mine – are already talking about slim HSPA modems at $10 price points, and $20 combined application processors and RF. Both Huawei and ZTE now targeting Top Three positions in devices, with deep engagements developing operator brands. They are already #1 and #2 in USB modems.  Just look at the pricing trends ZTE and Huawei brought to the infrastructure market; this will come to mobile devices.

2. Second, growth will rebound with a vengeance. I expect 15% volume growth in 2010, well ahead of the cautious consensus of 8%.  I first noted this failure of vision in forecasting in a 2005 note entitled “A Billion Handsets in 2007” when the consensus was looking for 6% growth whereas we got 20%+ growth for three years, thanks to the onset of $25 BoM devices. Consumers will not care about software platform debates or feature creep packing devices with GHz processors in 2010. Ask your friends who don’t read mobile blogs and aren’t hung up about AppStores or tear-downs:  they will simply respond to an impossibly wide choice of impossibly great devices, offered to them at impossibly cheap prices.

3. Third, the detente is over. The long-term stability that alllowed the top five vendors to command 80% market share for most of this decade is breaking down.  This is not simply a question of “Motorola fades, Samsung steps in” or “LG replaces SonyEricsson in the featurephone space”.  Within a year, there could be dangerously steep market share declines among the former market leaders (i.e. Nokia) to accompany their decline in value share. Operators are grasping control of the handset value chain; many intend to follow the lead of Vodafone 360 to develop their own range of mid-tier and low-end devices. Whether or not this delivers better user experiences, operators are determined to target their subsidy spend to their favourite ODM partners. In developed markets, long-established vendors are getting eclipsed: in 2010, RIM or Apple could pass traditional vendors like SonyEricsson or Motorola in units. RIM and Apple already handily out-paced older rivals in sales value, and with $41bn of estimated sales in 2010, are on par with Nokia.

Hyper competition
So where does this lead us? Even with far greater volumes than anyone dares to imagine, there is no way to satisfy everyone’s hopes of share gains, or profits. With Apple driving to $25bn in 2010 sales and Mediatek-based customers seeking share in emerging markets, the mobile device market is entering a phase of hyper-competition. It is all too easy for industry pundits to forget that Motorola and Sony Ericsson collectively lost over $5bn in the past 2.5 years. More such losses are to come.

Never before have we seen so many vendors acting individually rationally, but collectively insane. Albert Einstein once famously said that “the defintiion of insanity was doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result”.

The men in the white coats will have a field day with the mobile device market in 2010.

– Richard

[After four years as the #1 rated technology analyst in Europe, Richard Kramer left Goldman Sachs in 2000 to form an independent global technology research group. Arete has 10 years experience dissecting the financials and industry trends in  semis, software, devices and telecom operators, out of offices in London, Boston, New York and Hong Kong. Richard can be reached at richard [dot] kramer [at] arete.net]

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