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The end of the independent phone brand

As shown in the yesterday’s post, in the third quarter, overall mobile phone profitability declined. The eight vendors I use as a proxy showed a total net profit of $8.51 billion, down slightly from $8.57 billion and a drop of $9.01 billion in the first quarter.

Overall, the industry dropped by 1% sequentially but is still up 30% over last year and has a 20% compounded growth rate over a three year period.

  • Nokia returned to profitability, though at $180 million it’s only about 2% of the top eight.
  • Motorola remained in the red with a small loss of $20 million, an improvement over the $90 million loss of the previous quarter. Motorola is being acquired by Google after an accumulated mobile operating loss of $4.69 billion since the beginning of 2007. It’s unlikely we’ll receive any updates on performance thereafter.
  • Samsung had a great quarter with a sequential increase of 19% and year-on-year growth of 130%. The total profit amounted to 25% of the peer group.
  • Sony Ericsson broke even with about $50 million in operating profit. Like Motorola its performance was barely break-even during the last four years and its also disappearing from our list of independent vendors as it becomes part of Sony.
  • LG had its sixth consecutive quarterly loss and is now appealing to investors for more capital to continue operating as a smartphone vendor. Raising dilutive capital seems a radical approach and not one that inspires confidence.
  • RIM had a sequential reduction in profit of 35% and y/y reduction of 30%. The company is exhibiting clear signs of decay and the stock market is valuing the company below book value.
  • Apple profit dropped by 19% but grew 43% y/y during a transitional quarter. The growth remains 43% compounded over three years.
  • HTC has a 1% sequential increase but a 78% y/y growth.

To illustrate the performance in terms of profit, pricing, volumes and margins, I developed the following chart. 

The solid areas representing profit are operating profit/phone in the vertical axis and volumes shipped in the horizontal. The blank areas above are the cost of goods sold per phone and the combined solid and blank represent the average revenue per phone.

Some of the areas are over-represented due to the lack of resolution available.

Using before-and-after pie charts for positive profits, we can see how the entrants (RIM, Apple and HTC) went from 6% of profits to over 73% four and a half years later.

I feel that this is somehow the end of an era. I’ve written before about the brutality of this market, listing 13 companies which were either merged or acquired or disappeared in the last decade. Now both Motorola and Sony Ericsson will soon be added to the list. On average, it’s as if one phone vendor has disappeared every year for fifteen years.

And it’s still not over. RIM is also becoming a going concern issue, and LG has a big question mark above it.

Of course, ZTE and Huawei and Lenovo are joining the list of competitors but I note that they are not focused on mobile phones. They are opportunistic phone vendors, depending on other businesses to compensate for the risks inherent in phone sales. It’s interesting to note that neither Apple nor Samsung are pure phone plays.

In fact, of all the phone brands only RIM and HTC are exclusively phone-only companies. It may indicate something profound is happening. The notion that the development and marketing of phones as an activity independent of other business models may be coming to an end.