Putting Nokia Back Together

So Dell is making Android mobile phones while Nokia is making Windows PCs. A curious confluence of poor management decisions.

Why is all this dilution of core competence happening? Average punditry would suggest it’s all about “convergence” and the overlapping of mobile and until-recently-fixed computing.

Er, not quite.

The economics of plastic bits shipped in cardboard boxes has not changed. It’s as lousy a business as it has always been, whether the plastic bits are small or large. Some would argue that the gross margins of mobile devices are higher than those of computers, but that’s not true on average. The gross margin on average mobile phones is just as low (<10%) as it is on PCs. There are about the same number of competitors and rivalry and global marketplace.

If indeed, margins were the only story, why would Nokia choose to chase the low margin PC business while holding (albeit very tentatively) 50% global share in “smartphones”? Similarly, why would RIMM choose to chase the low end consumer business (link: Blackberry Pearl et. al.) while having the fat margins of thinly penetrated business devices to wallow in? Finally, why would there be hundreds (literally link: www.pdadb.net) Windows Mobile smartphone licensees, the vast majority of which don’t manage to sell more than the 50k minimum volume licenses they are obliged to order?

The fact of the matter is that the money being chased by device vendors is not being paid for devices, but for the service plans those devices enable. More precisely, these businesses are concerned with capturing a share of ARPU uplift from mobile data services. As such, they are mostly offering hardware as enticements for the *change* in ARPU that mobile broadband creates. Success depends on the power of that hardware to compel users to switch to higher data service fees.

The first proponent in his “hardware as ARPU booster” was actually Microsoft back in 2003 when they entered the mobile OS market. One of their value propositions was that Windows Mobile would boost data ARPU. The reality was not so compelling however as WinMo turned out to be too awkward to use for most users and the power of the platform lay fallow. In reality, the first successful hardware ARPU booster was RIM. In the middle of this decade, RIM showed that a Blackberry user could be worth between $5000 and $8000 in NPV ARPU to an operator. For that juicy pie, RIM was handsomely rewarded with a small “cut” that boosted their margins to above 50% making them the most profitable device vendor on the planet.

The realization only began to set in about 2007 as every other vendor began applying resources to deliver ARPU boosters. Apple took note early and executed beautifully with the iPhone, mastering the “get paid for ARPU” game, and in the process capturing 50%+ gross margins and (depending on the quarter) up to 30% of all profits in the device industry.

To forecast how this game will be played and how sustainable this boosterism is, we need to segment or categorize the market according to ARPU. The way to visualize this is what I call the “wedding cake” model. Each cake layer represents the population of users in that ARPU segment and the thickness of that layer represents the delta of ARPU to the layer below.

  • The base layer is huge (billions of customers) and represents the prepaid voice market. The average “thickness” of this layer is about $10/mo.
  • The next layer is smaller and represents the postpaid voice market. The thickness is about $30, representing the “boost” over prepaid.
  • The next layer is smaller still and represents the postpaid voice+data market where the data is a-la-carte. This is typical of plans where the buyer pays separately for certain data services (e.g. email, navigation, etc.) and pays on a per-megabyte basis for browsing. The ARPU differential is about $20.
  • Finally the top layer is the unlimited data plan packaged with bucket voice and SMS. Here the ARPU differential is another $30.

At its highest, the cake is about $100/mo., though the width of the top layer and hence the population of paying customers at that price point is quite small relative to the other layers.

Now each layer is covered with a “frosting” which is the device hardware revenue. Obviously the frosting gets a bit thicker the higher the layer, but it’s a relatively thin layer compared to the “cake” thickness. In the higher layers the trend is in fact to make the frosting as thin as possible (<$99 NPV or <$4/mo. for a 24 mo. contract.) The devices which enable the top layers are clearly more complex and expensive to make, but the end-user pricing is trending down. The trick is therefore to convince the operators to pay a piece of the “cake” to the device vendor in exchange for migrating users to these higher layers.

Nokia Quarterly Results

Nokia’s latest quarterly results and forecast caused a 15% drop in the share price on a day when the S&P rose by about 1%. The drop was the largest single day change in the company’s valuation since 2004. The cause for the drop was not macroeconomics or performance in the previous quarter, but the guidance provided.

The shock was in an unchanged low margin and a flat market share. Both of these measures of performance were expected to improve as the overall market improved. What Nokia is saying, in effect, is that it will perform no better than the market average. Naturally, its value should therefore be no higher than the market average.

The trouble is that the “market” for mobile phones is abysmally free of value and hence of profits. Taking the sum of profits for all the major incumbents (Nokia, Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson and Motorola) we find that net profits for the entire industry are, at best, flimsy, at worst, negligible. But this begs another question: why is value missing in mobile devices–a market that seems to be growing faster than almost any other technology market?

First a few facts:

  • Focusing only on Devices & Services, Nokia did make a net profit of EUR763 million on sales of 103.2 million phones. That’s EUR 7.39 average operating profit per phone. In Q1 Nokia Devices made about EUR 6 per phone, so a slight improvement, but down from about EUR 20 a year ago.
  • Sony Ericsson entered its fourth quarter of losses.
  • Motorola entered its 9th consecutive quarter of losses.
  • Samsung and LG are at about break-even.

So if one were to look at the incumbents, the ~1 billion phones they sell a year seem to be generating barely EUR2 per phone, most of it in the hands of Nokia.

The exceptions are, of course, the entrants RIM and Apple with EUR 60 and EUR 120 profits respectively per phone, orders of magnitude above average.

Nokia seems to be the best of a bad lot. Can Nokia expect to join the entrant cohort or sink with the incumbents? Answering this question forces us to go through a deep examination of what correlates with value in the new device market.

Assessing Nokia’s Competitive Response

When the iPhone was announced in January 2007 I tried to envision the competitive response from Nokia. The method involved some knowledge of the product development cycle that I was faintly aware of.

Here is what I predicted:

  • 2007.There would be no response within the first year, meaning there would be no perceived threat of any kind. No process change, No roadmap changes and no business review. Apple is not considered a competitor.
  • 2008.There would be plans made to respond with press releases, dismissing the challenge as a non-threatening “positive” for the industry. No process changes, no product plan changes, no business model changes. Apple would not be considered a competitor except in “high end multimedia” (invisible in any of the segments Nokia uses to define markets).
  • 2009.In the third year, product development teams would be asked to begin roadmapping some of the hardware features that would keep Nokia ostensibly competitive (unfortunately for Nokia, hardware is not what sells iPhones). Results from these efforts would emerge in 18 to 24 months. Apple not considered a competitor except in “high end converged devices” (i.e. a few consumer segments/categories are considered vulnerable).
  • 2010.Realization that iPhone is a threat from new dimensions (user experience). Planning begins on reshaping the software base as a market-driven (not technology-driven) asset (5 year cycle). Apple begins to be evaluated as a competitor in devices and services, although still not compliant with current market definitions.
  • 2011.The realization that the iPhone competes as a platform. Planning begins on repositioning Symbian/Ovi. Products planned in 2009 begin shipping–this means first capacitive touch screens but crude, almost unusable software.
  • 2012.The realization that the iPhone is an integrated product and that integration is a key to competitiveness enters management consciousness. Planning begins on organizational change and a realignment of incentives to account for this new threat. Crude shuffling of internal assets and management musical chairs begins. Organizational change amounts to mostly new names for old departments. Touch screen phones with slightly better software begin shipping (similar in feel to Blackberry Storm from 2008). Incentives are added for employees (in across-the-board performance objectives) to hit user experience targets.
  • 2013.Management begins planning a new organization structure that takes into consideration the fundamental causes of iPhone’s success: integration, software, user experience over the objections of sales and markets org that depends on shipping plastic to distributor. Another reorganization that is slightly more rational and aligned with the market is initiated. The plan is to have the assets in place by 2019 to compete effectively as a platform.
  • 2014.First products that are roughly comparable with iPhone version 1 begin shipping. The required software redesign started in 2010 is coupled with the integration efforts. Nokia’s response to the iPhone has begun.

I tried to revisit the prediction to update it with anecdotal evidence but so far there has been little activity that has affected the trajectory.

  1. Note 1: Whether an iPhone v1.0 shipping in 2014 would be competitive is left as an exercise to the reader.
  2. Note 2: The N97 shipping in 2009 is the result of work begun in 2007, it has had no influence at all from the iPhone.
  3. Note 3: The Microsoft response cycle is slightly shorter (perhaps 5 years vs. 7) but they lose a year in efforts to integrate with licensees. As neither MSFT nor GOOG are able to integrate products, they will never be able to actually deliver a competitive product. In this regard, Nokia has an advantage.
  4. Note 4: The key takeaway from this analysis is that the industry standard product cycle for an integrated, platform based product is 5 to 8 years and if one competitor can achieve a 2 to 3 year cycle, then the more nimble competitor can “turn inside” the industry and, within two cycles, dominate it. Although smaller competitors are able to turn product faster, they are usually unable to sustain the platform heavy lifting (which takes an order of magnitude more effort/assets).