Unforgiven: The consequences of profit failure in mobile phones

In June of last year I wrote a post titled “Does the phone market forgive failure?” It was written on the eve of Nokia’s Q2 2011 report highlighting the historic consequences of a dip into negative operating margins for a phone vendor.

I listed 13 phone vendors who were either merged, liquidated or acquired. There are no examples of vendors who recovered from a position of loss making.

I was prompted to follow-up by a note Charter Equity Research analyst Edward Snyder wrote illustrating the effect of negative operating margins on phone vendors. I took his illustration and expanded it with additional data.

Since my post in June last year Sony Ericsson and Motorola were acquired making the victims list total 14 companies, with Nokia, LG and RIM having joined the “endangered species list”. If the pattern repeats, then RIM and Nokia are in early phases of what promises to be an extended period of pain followed by an exit.

What the analysis does not answer is when a vendor loses its independence after beginning loss making. Motorola took 20 quarters; Sony Ericsson 14, Ericsson 8 and Siemens only 7. We cannot tell if or when LG, which is still operating after 8 and Nokia, which is now in its fourth and RIM, now in its second quarter post-loss, will lose independence.

The rumors swirling around RIM and LG are centered around exits and some suggest Nokia will follow. Many also argue that these companies will recover. The conditions they each face are different in details but broadly they are the same. Earlier last decade the exits were prompted by loss of brand value and subsequent loss of distribution. This decade disruption brought upon by mobile computing brings with it new business models centered on ecosystems and value captured through software and services.

Until and unless these endangered companies solve the dilemma of having the wrong business model at the wrong time, the chances are that they will not be forgiven for market failure.