The Crucible of the Phone Market

[The following was originally published on LinkedIn.]

The US is in the forefront of smartphone usage. This has not always been the case. Five years ago only 3 percent of US phone users were using a smartphone, lower than the global average. At the time Palm and BlackBerry were the prominent devices in the US while in Europe Nokia’s push with Symbian and Microsoft’s licensing of Windows Mobile led to a smartphone adoption rate of about 7%.

All that changed with the iPhone. After 2007 the US began to rapidly catch up and eventually overtook all other regions in terms of smartphone adoption. The latest data from comScore Mobilens shows that the US is now effectively 50% penetrated. The following chart shows just how quickly this happened.

In December 2009 only 17% of Americans used a smartphone as their primary phone. As of August the total reached 49.8%. By today the US is effectively a majority smartphone usage country and it looks like there is no slowing. We might very well see the US reach saturation with 80% smartphone usage in another two years.

Of course, the US is not the first country to reach this threshold. Some northern European countries were there earlier, but North America is the first major region to get there. That means over 115 million smartphone users in one market. As a result, the US has become the crucible of the whole smartphone market. It’s where platforms are most concentrated in use and therefore the most sensitive to the effects of that usage. That leads to more innovation, more discovery of new use cases and more ecosystem growth. Quite simply, it’s where competition is most heated.

This prominent position implies that the US could now be seen as a leading indicator of global trends. It might allow a keen observer to predict what will happen from US data. So what does the mobile platform rivalry look like in the US?  We are fortunate because the data is finely grained in the US. We have montly updates from comScore and we get specific platform penetration data. The following graph shows the shares of the major platforms since late 2009.

It becomes immediately evident that BlackBerry has lost a huge part of its user base to Android and iOS. In 2.5 years share when from about 42% to 8%. In raw numbers that’s 11 million users that switched to another smartphone.

Looking closer you can also see a consistent growth in share for the iPhone since mid 2010 with a slightly higher rate of increase of share than Android in the last few months. The problem is that this pattern of rapid decline in RIM and moderating growth in Android is not necessarily mirrored globally.

RIM just reported an increase in total users during the last quarter (from 78 to 80 million subscribers.) Google also recently reported 500 million Android activations globally with no apparently letup in growth.

So there seems to once again be a disparity between the US and global platforms. Do we take the US market to be anomalous or is it a pre-cursor to global trends?

Certainly the US market is in many ways unique with a very low rate of pre-paid usage and a relatively high ARPU and average device pricing due to subsidies. However, the global trend has been to increasingly mirror the US not vice-versa. The iPhone has radiated out of the US in terms of usage and so has Android. Attempts by other platforms to make inroads in the US have been unsuccessful. Symbian failed to gain a foothold and it seems Windows Phone is stumbling as well. Both of these platforms have had more success outside the US. The US operator subsidy model has also been “exported” more than pre-paid has been “imported”. By 2007 Europe was moving away from subsidies as prices of feature phones were coming down and 3G was still in its infancy. That was reversed as the large screen smartphones became the device of choice. In addition to device and operator trends, most apps originate in the US and the major social media platforms are all American-based. In other words, the modes of usage are being conceived in the US.

On the other hand, the US is still a tiny percent of total consumption. It represents only about 6% of all phone users. Chances are that prices for devices in the US (especially the iPhone) can’t be sustained for 5 billion consumers. Then there are “cultural” considerations where regions cling to their own usage habits and perceptions of value.

So it’s still an open question of whether the US is the leading indicator for how platforms might change globally but I would watch this data very carefully. When it comes to mobile platforms, it might be that if it plays in the US it will play globally.

  • The US is clearly a key centre (or center I guess they’d call it) for mobile innovation and trends these days. When it comes to device/manufacturer/platform share I don’t think it will prove to be a very good indicator for two reasons:
    1) The level of network contract pricing and subsidy in the US makes the cost of the device almost irrelevant to total cost of ownership. The iPhone benefits massively from this. The “free” iPhone 4 is still a really expensive device elsewhere in the world.
    2) The distribution of prices of Android devices varies significantly across the world – largely due to cost sensitivity.

    While iPhone growth is currently greater than Android, with Android growth moderating in the US I expect that to continue to be reversed elsewhere in the world unless they come up with a model designed to be cheaper (which they could very simply not sell in the richest markets if they can’t differentiate sufficiently otherwise – Indian version without an English UI language setting anyone?), rather than simply an old model with the price reduced. As you’ve noted before, Apple seem to be getting enough growth at eye-watering margins for it not to be worth their while risking this move yet.

    • masquisieras

      I think, most people have a tendency to forget production capacity.
      A cheaper model to be economically interesting to Apple would need to be produced in bigger numbers than the high end models and Apple is already doubling production for his high end per year and not fully covering full world demand.
      Would Apple be capable of increasing Phone production in a factor of 8?
      double for the high end and two cheap units per each high end unit produced
      I doubt it.

      • Rich

        This would depend on how many cheaper models there are and then what versions of the cheaper models they decide to produce. If it were just one cheaper model available in say 16GB only their production levels wouldnt be impacted as much.

      • Since Apple outsources production, increasing production capacity for a new cheaper model (presumably with a lot of different components) would most likely mean adding new partners or existing partners adding factories (or in the case of Foxconn, probably just ditching some other customers would do). Usually constraints on “production capacity” are actually due to component shortages – sometimes due to the capacity of the factories which make the components and sometimes due to a failure to anticipate demand accurately.

        A factor of 8 is far too high – that would imply Apple growing the smartphone market well beyond it’s current size with a single additional product and having an extremely unrealistic market share. If they could sell a similar number of cheaper phones at half the margin it would still be economically interesting and also strategically interesting, since it expands the reach of their ecosystem. The main risk is that the availability of a cheaper product would reduce the premium they can charge for the high-end version.

        Given current market share and profitability, the existing iPhone looks about perfectly positioned in the US and some other advanced markets too.

      • masquisieras

        But a similar lower spec product with the same margin are been sell right now, it is call last year model.
        Apple is eating the high-end Smartphone market with an annually growth of a factor of 2x that keep with the general smartphone growth

        So if Apple keeps its high end production and just produce a cheap unit in the same amount a factor of 4x is needed in increase production respect the previous year. If you are reducing margins to get to that low end you would like to compensate with and increase in units so a factor of 4 will be a minimum. As you say a factor of 8 is excessive but even a factor of 4 is a huge increase

        And why would Foxconn or anyone else ditch another costumer to get the same profit and become more dependent of a single costumer and a new factory is not build from one day to another. When you are talking in the range of tenth of million of units a month “production capacity”: the acquisition and distribution of parts, its assembly and distribution of that units and it sale is a complex network and is slow to build.

  • Looking at the US and the world how do you reconcile the very low Android users vs iOS users on all published web metrics (net applications being a good example). The numbers that Samsung reveled in their court case with Apple do imply that the Android sales numbers are overstated, but even then that does not explain the discrepancy?

    • Web metrics don’t show users, they show usage. Quite simply Android devices cover a wide spectrum of price points and at the low end they’re not really being used as “smartphones” at all – sometimes there’s even no data plan. It’s simple self selection – the majority of people that really want the web in their pocket buy iPhones. Direct comparison with those in terms of usage (generalising of course) is really only the high-end Android devices which are a relatively small fraction of the giant totals you see for platform market share.

      • Tatil_S

        Android usage on WiFi is even lower.

  • Sharon_Sharalike

    Here in Thailand I spent a couple of hours in the bank today taking care of a bunch of things. During the time I was sitting there several employee-owned iPhones rang. They were all 4’s. (not 4S). I spoke with one who *really* wanted a 5 but it was simply out of her reach financially. An unlocked 5 represents much much more than a month’s salary to her. She had purchased her 4 second-hand. She knew I’ll be taking a trip back to the US and she said “When you get your iPhone 5 will you come in and show it to me?” That’s how desired it is here.

    I’ve no doubt that when Apple decides the time is right to cater to that market that they will sell that phone as fast as they can make them for a very long time. *Everybody* wants an iPhone. Many don’t even know why, they just know they want them. An affordable phone with the Apple brand would demolish the rest of the market. And it’s not a trivial one. There are more than 60M people in Thailand. And I can only assume the situation is similar in other growing Asian countries.

    • rich

      Interesting, but how long does it take before a product desired turns into an unreachable desire and the consumer stops attempts to acquire said product.

      • Sharon_Sharalike

        I don’t know. It’s Apple’s job to figure that out 🙂

      • carpenter

        One would think that Apple is planning “cheap” iPhone. It only makes sense if it’s great in it’s price category. To succeed profitably Apple would need to be able to make the device with very low BOM(maybe 50$). The it could be sold for 150$. Now when Apple has competent chip design organization and huge scale, it may be possible during next year.

      • Tatil_S

        Apple has to keep launching high end iPhones at least once a year. If it wants to offer low end ones, it would probably have to make them with slower CPUs, lower resolution screens etc, something like a 3GS, which it stopped selling. I am not sure if the software fragmentation would be worth the extra income. It does not even sell iPhones at more than two colors, which is relatively trivial.

      • David Leppik

        Apple has made its strategy pretty clear: make older iPhones cheaper. I suspect the iPhone 4 was designed with that in mind: not only is it made to be mass-produced in high quantities, but it’s made out of a relatively small number of components, each of which is extremely cheap to produce in bulk. Most of the costs are fixed: R&D and new factories. And every year they replace more factory workers with robots.

        Can they produce an iPhone 4 for under $50, once the factories and R&D are all paid for, and nearly all the manual production steps have been eliminated? I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t assume they can’t.

      • Tatil_S

        What is your timeline for that iPhone 4 that cost $50 to make? If, by the time, the high end iPhone is 10x more powerful, it’d be difficult to design an OS and apps that can take advantage of the speed of the high end, but still have similar features on the low end. (Already, iPhone 4 feels slow.) Besides, Apple’s reputation is partly based on its support for older devices. The cheap iPhone will be even slower than the high end version one or two years later when it is time for an OS upgrade.

        Apple has not tried very hard to make cheap PCs and I suspect it will not go for the low end in smartphones with the same iOS ecosystem. It may do something like iPod Nano, with some built-in apps, but nowhere near the versatility of iPod Touch. Something that looks quite different than iPhone, so it is obvious to the customers and third party developers that this is a different ecosystem and value proposition. The question is how to do that better than a cheap Android phone…

    • kevin

      Because of this global demand for cheaper iPhones, there is a vibrant iPhone resale market (amazon, gazelle, etc), which greatly reduces the cost of new iPhones for current iPhone owners. In other words, I can sell my now off-contract iPhone 4 for $200, and use that to pay for a new on-contract Phone 5.

      This is actually an expansion of the model Apple has used for people wanting cheaper Macs (excepting the difference caused by carrier subsidies).

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  • Rich

    Perhaps the US consumer moves much slower at adopting new business models than their European counterparts.
    Since the launch of the 4S & 5 in the US I have noticed a very small amount of users opting to pay full price for a iPhone and seek alternate monthly plans from carriers than the contractual 2 year plans. Some large carriers are denying this or locking phones until a 2 year contract is underway.

    • The reason the model you describe is not common is that it does not make economic sense when you run all the numbers (as I did before I got my iPhone5).

      – VZW contract is very expensive — but makes sense if you match their profile in terms of having multiple devices across which you want to share MB.
      – Sprint contract is very expensive — their gimmick is that they offer unlimited data, which I think is a dumb idea, the product of listening to much to a few loudmouths on the internet. As far as I can tell this is being reflected in their iPhone sales rates, where (last time I checked, and the numbers were preliminary and maybe wrong) they were attracting only 5 to 10% of sales.

      – ATT contract is reasonably priced, ESPECIALLY if you
      + only require limited data
      + mostly use iMessage rather than texts
      + share the plan with family members

      When you run the numbers against StraightTalk (an MVNO) over two years, taking the phone subsidy into account, you land up paying about $5 month more overall for that ATT contract. For that $5 you get
      – LTE
      – working visual voicemail
      – working MMS
      Seems like a reasonable tradeoff.

      You can try different MVNOs, but will run into various other issues; eg at least for now T-Mobile’s frequencies don’t support HSPA (this will change at the end of this year).

      The larger point is that most people who insist that their carrier or MVNO is the one true way are the sorts of fools who refuse to accept that other people have very different needs from them.
      VZW DOES make sense — if you use a large amount of data each month, across multiple devices.
      Sprint (maybe?) makes sense if you really needs unlimited data (even with throttling).
      All these contract plans have special deals for multiple phones on one account, or if you’re calling people on the same network; and again for many people that pooling makes sense.

      If you’re in a situation where a prepaid plan works for you, great, but don’t be so quick to claim that the rest of the US are idiots because they aren’t following your example. The two most important issues that cannot be ignored are
      – the iPhone subsidy is substantial, and has to be factored into the costs
      – most people in the US are part of some group (a couple or a family or whatever) and the prices for “family-plan” type contracts change the numbers substantially; compared to prepaid where, as far as I know, there are no such things as family plans.

      Rant all you like about how this is deliberately segmenting and confusing the market, rather than the simple flat, comparable plans of other countries. But that is what the situation in the US is; and people choose an appropriate plan given the various plans on offer, not the theoretical plans that might be on offer if the US were South Korea or Finland or whatever today’s model of enlightened cheap cell phone usage is.

      • Your comparison of AT&T and Straight Talk is incorrect. I’m familiar with AT&T pricing and am currently a Straight Talk customer. Let’s break this down:

        Individual plan (voice only): $40

        3GB of data (4G): $30
        Text messaging: $20

        That’s a total of $90 plus tax. Even if we leave out text messaging that’s $70 plus tax. Wireless taxes typically run 12-18% depending on your state.

        Now Straight Talk.

        Unlimited voice, data, and text: $45. And there’s no wireless taxes either. That’s because prepaid is treated differently than post-paid. So the “reup card,” their terminology for a consumer purchasing a new month of service, is tax free.

        So that’s a difference of about $60 once you include taxes. Over a 24- month contract that equals $1,440 in additional cost vs. Straight Talk. A subsidized iPhone 5 cost $200 for 16GB model. That model can be purchased without subsidy for $649 once Apple begins selling them (same price as unsubsidized 4S last year). That is only a difference of $449.

        As far as service, I haven’t had one issue on Straight Talk. They lease spectrum from AT&T, and I don’t even have to be unlocked to get their service. Just pop in the sim (or nano-sim) and go. Data speeds average 3-4mbps. In conclusion, there’s a lot of money to be saved by going pre-paid. It’s a shame so many people are stuck on the post-paid treadmill and can’t get off.

      • Tatil_S

        300MB/mo is enough for some if there is WiFi at work and at home. iMessage makes SMS a rare cost. That brings AT&T monthly rate to about $70 including taxes and fees, vs $45, making the difference only $600 over two years. After iPhone subsidy, it is down to $150. AT&T gives me a $10/mo discount on my DSL bill for having a cell phone with them. Now AT&T wins by $90 over two years. I also do not lose visual voicemail, MMS and LTE. At AT&T, I know the rate will not go up during this time thanks to the contract, while Straight Talk can raise it to $50 or $55 any time it wants. (Many large companies negotiate 10-20% discounts for their employees on personal post-paid plans on top of all that, but I’ll leave that aside.)

      • Jesus. I specifically state a whole lot of caveats and special circumstances, and, what do you know — precisely the sort of response I warned against.

        Why do you assume I want the 3GB plan? Maybe what I want is the 200MB plan (grandfathered in at $15)?
        Why do you assume I want the $20 SMS plan, especially when I SAID that ATT made more sense for people who use iMessages rather than SMS? I pay per SMS and spend maybe 40c a month — two texts maybe.
        Doing the arithmetic my way, you get to $55 per month. Include taxes and you’re at $65 a month. The difference with straight talk is $20 a month, so $480 over two years. Assume a subsidy of, say, $450 your difference is $30/24 over two years, so $1 a month. (When I said $5 a month I didn’t know the extent of the subsidy and assumed $350, not $450.)
        If you have a family plan, it works out even better.

        StraightTalk doesn’t give you LTE. HSPA+ is a reasonable substitute but is rather more crowded that LTE. Moreover, last time I checked StraightTalk, as I said, doesn’t offer Visual Voicemail or MMS.
        $1 to $2 a month, for LTE rather than HSPA+, and for visual voicemail (which I care about) and MMS (which I don’t care about but might use once a year). Is that worth it? IMHO yes.

        Next time try actually BELIEVING what I am saying before insisting that everything I said applied to my situation doesn’t actually apply to me. After all, you know better than me, don’t you, whether I care about a large data budget, or whether I use SMS a lot, or whether I am enrolled in a family plan?

        I’m not saying it will always be this way. Things change.
        – When T-Metro get their act together, they may aggressively disrupt pre-paid.
        – Sprint may fire Dan Hesse and start being run by someone who’s not a complete moron.
        – StraightTalk in two years time may offer LTE.
        – In two years time, after the contract is paid off, I (and other people) may not find buying an iPhone 2014 compelling, so the subsidy is a moot point. etc etc etc.
        My point it IS this way right now.

      • Not sure why you’re so defensive. I didn’t tack on SMS automatically. I added that separately. And 300 mb isn’t enough for average consumer, who uses far more. It’s true Straight Talk doesn’t have LTE coverage at all, but let’s not kid ourselves AT&T’s rollout isn’t very impressive thus far. But of course it’ll be quite extensive very soon.

        Family plans are great but still very expensive. Many tip toward $200 monthly with just 3 lines. Everyone’s situation is different. My point was that prepaid is certainly a great option and clearly is capable of providing great value.

      • (a) You do know that Straight Talk uses ATT’s network? Their not offering LTE is a commercial decision, not a technical one.

        (b) Once again you insist on looking at broad averages rather than accepting individual circumstances. ATT HAS rolled out LTE in my city, and I don’t travel much. So the patchiness or otherwise of their LTE network is not an important factor in my decision-making.

      • (a) You do know that Straight Talk uses ATT’s network? Their not offering LTE is a commercial decision, not a technical one.

        (b) Once again you insist on looking at broad averages rather than accepting individual circumstances. ATT HAS rolled out LTE in my city, and I don’t travel much. So the patchiness or otherwise of their LTE network is not an important factor in my decision-making.

      • I’m a straight talk user also. I just re-upped for a year. Prepaid. Total cost $556. $46.33 per month – that’s crazy cheap! Unlimited Talk, Unlimited Text, Unlimited Internet (presumably) but probably would get throttled after 2GB download. Internet is only 3g, of course, and nothing like LTE speeds which I’ve experienced but the savings make this situation tolerable. I’m hoping in a year, Freedompop has LTE option. Then game over for the incumbent cellular providers. The ground is shifting below their feet!

  • poke

    I think the US is extremely important for platforms because of the size of the economy, the availability of funding and the disproportionate amount of software expertise. So when “smartphones” weren’t particularly successful as platforms, the US market wasn’t as important. But now not being big in the US market means US companies are less likely to develop for your platform, which is a huge problem. I doubt any platform can survive globally without significant US market share now.

  • KirkBurgess

    I think the massive contract amounts, and in turn handset subsidies, in the USA market can not be used as a reliable indication of international sales.
    I dont know if the data is available for OECD countries, but I would be willing to bet there is some correlation between a markets average monthly plan cost and the cost of the entry level iPhone.
    Look at the latest iPhone release – the entry level iPhone in the USA went from $375 to $450, whereas this increase in price was not mirrored in many international markets, with the entry level price remaining the same.
    Strangely, while the entry level iPhone is now cheaper in many international markets than the USA unsubsidized price, the middle (4S) & premier (5) models cost a lot more than the equivalent USA unsubsidized price.
    I’m not sure what this implies – does Apple have a small but significant percentage of most markets that will buy the latest premier model regardless of price (and so it prices it higher), and then is trying to win the larger more cost sensative share of the market (which is comparitively larger than in the USA market) with the reduced priced entry level model in a more aggressive rate than in the USA?

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  • suddy

    Dear Horace,
    With all due respect, I will have to say that this is a very watered down analysis and data points chosen to support your hypothesis. Your analysis is for US Smartphone adoption and how it drives rest of the world demand. All your data points are chosen to support your hypothesis.

    Nordic countries had 90%+ cell (feature) phone penetration (you will surely have better stats than someone from US)

    By 2006/2007 Korea & Japan had 4G speeds and they did have 4G phones 5+ years back

    What is unique about iOS & Android is that they come with an eco-system that was previously limited or not available

    They more interesting question is why did not the “faddish” 4G phones in Korea of 2006 become popular in the US and rest of World? – Most likely as there was no 4G speeds in 2006/07

    Why did not Sweden & Finland (home of Erickson / Nokia) , that did have their own “silicon valley” type start-ups and support from the Govt not continue their momentum in the Smartphone era?

    Any thoughts and analysis on why smartphone revolution did not ignite from any of these countries?

    • suddy

      I meant to say – Nordic countries had 90% cell phone penetration by late 1990’s

    • Quoted from the post: “Of course, the US is not the first country to reach this threshold. Some northern European countries were there earlier, but North America is the first major region to get there. That means over 115 million smartphone users in one market. “

  • An interesting question that I feel was ignored here is, to what extent Americans are nationalistic. Both Google and Apple are American companies. They innovated in a country with 3% smartphone usage – and was therefore least sensitive to smartphone usage – yet they grew to dominate the smart phone market. They took the market from Blackberry (which is not US, but it is North American), and Blackberry in turn from Motorola before that.

    Therefore, the question whether North Americans favor home grown brands over international brands comes to mind. Was there a latent need for ‘local’ smartphone brands. If this was the case, and if we look to the US as the leader, we could come to expect the world to favor American products. Looking at globally successful companies, this may be true. However I believe, as you hint to, that in the long-run cultural differences could be the source for divergent trends – especially now as we are reaching an extreme in product conformity across the main players.

    I believe if we look too much at the North American market for direction – and that is what many mobile companies seem to do – we would only look at the red ocean, and ignore the billions of individuals in the blue oceans.

  • Back in 1998 I worked in the telecoms industry. I was in a bus at Madrid airport being taken out to a waiting plane and a Spaniard was talking loudly on his mobile phone. An elderly American couple were sitting opposite me staring at him and one of them said something like “My god, they talk on those things all the time!”. Back then mobile phones were everywhere in Europe, but still a rarity in the US. How times have changed.

  • alexmansur

    We allways assume that the choice for Android is due to its low prices. It may be so more often than not. But it would be interesting to know how many of those Androids sold are actually more expensive than the iPhones.

  • Dimoaapl

    Every time someone buys a used iPhone it is one less customer that a competitor gets. For Apple, even though they don’t make money on the that hardware, this acts as a training tool and placeholder until that customer is ready to by a new iPhone.

  • Dimoaapl

    Every time someone buys a used iPhone it is one less customer that a competitor gets. For Apple, even though they don’t make money on the that hardware, this acts as a training tool and placeholder until that customer is ready to by a new iPhone.

  • silverlining

    Thank you for the blog and podcasts Horace. I have learned greatly. I think on this question, disruption theory points in two directions. First, if you are battling non-consumption, then the US market is the place to start as it is the undisputed leader of consumption in the global consumer society.

    However, disruption often comes from markets that the leaders don’t care about until it is too late. From this point of view, solutions such as mobile payments (and other services) are first being vetted in emerging economies. If the next truly disruptive innovation is an input innovation, then it seems that battleground would be the US. For my money, I am betting the next disruptive innovation is from the services side.
    I believe that Apple initially dealt with the competitive response issue in the US phone mkt by knowingly entering with the Ipod first. This allowed them to gain valuable experience and traction without incurring a competitive response from the likes of Nokia and others until Apple felt it was ready to compete in the phone market.
    Apple currently makes its money selling high margin hardware. But its future success is tied to having a globally competitive mobile platform that is either #1 or #2. Based on this, Apple cannot afford to cede any market to competitors and will launch a strategy to ensure that their platform is one of the top two choices in all markets when the time is right in each market. Older model, lower priced I-phones may be an acceptable strategy. If not, there are other options that are available to them.

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