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Day August 19, 2010

Talk of mobile dominance is bunk

I’ve been asked in comments on this blog who will win the “mobile war”.

I use two analytical tools to answer this question: (1) history (2) value chain analysis.

History shows that operators are very important and hence very powerful in this market. That makes sense on many levels. They control what phones you get to buy, they decide the pricing and they decide frequently how you can use the phone. This is because the networks are expensive to build and maintain and there is an implicit bargain struck that the user and device should conform to the operator.

Value chain analysis tells me that as networks are not good enough, tight integration of the business models of the phone vendors and the operators is necessary to climb up the trajectory toward good enough as quickly as possible.

Therefore, given the distribution of value/bargaining power in the chain, it’s reasonable to assume that it’s operators who will decide which platforms win/lose and to what degree.

That simply means that no single platform can win a disproportionate share because it would threaten the balance of control the operators require. So talk of “dominance” of one platform or another is hyperbole. The most likely scenario is an even distribution of share between 4 or 5 competitors, so I expect iPhone and Android to get 20% share each.

This is not “fair” or economical or efficient, but it’s the way it’s going to be for a long time. If you’re a fan, don’t despair. In a few years, it still means hundreds of millions of units a year for each platform.

If you want to dream or hope for a more efficient outcome, you’ll have to look outside the cellular network model. I.e. think how iPod/iPad and Android tablets will evolve into communications products.

(thanks to M for asking).

HTC: How They Compare

In the last mobile market update series I wrote of  the evolution of market share, the shift in where dollars are spent, the tale of ASP erosionprofitability ratios over time and EBIT share over time.

I did not include all vendors for various good reasons. The first survey (market share) did include an “others” category that made the volume data complete, but in the financial data sets, I chose to include the top 7 vendors that make up 80% of device volumes.

One noteworthy vendor that was not included was HTC. HTC is an important vendor for several reasons:

  • it’s a pioneer in smartphones having made the first Windows Mobile devices and the first Android devices
  • at one point it sold 80% of all Windows Mobile devices
  • even if it did not brand its devices, it was the name behind many re-branded or white-label operator branded phones
  • it has a brand of its own today and is expanding its reach

HTC has been around building devices since 2001 and so it would be a pity to exclude them from any analysis of the effect of iPhone on the market or any discussion on the effect of smartphone disruption on feature phones.

The challenge with HTC was that historically their branded devices and white label devices were not reported by the company separately. This matters because white label devices are valued differently. Typically these devices are not marketed by the original manufacturer so SG&A is not applied to their cost base. Operating margins, ASPs and hence profitability is not directly comparable with other OEMs.

But HTC has recently changed its reporting. Thanks to a reader I discovered that, since 2008, HTC has been listing its ASP and Operating Margin making direct comparisons possible. I still don’t have all the data, but enough to add HTC to the analysis.

So, here are the 5 industry performance criteria, now with eight vendors listed.