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What has Android done for Apple?

One of the most popular themes running through the mobile phone industry this year has been the unprecedented growth in Android adoption. I’ve argued that the adoption was initiated on the supply side by vendors and operators, but demand has certainly manifested itself.

Android is almost viral in the way it spreads. With no constraints on intellectual property, pricing, contracts, modification or terms of distribution, the incentives to push product out are phenomenal. It even works, mostly.

One hypothesis of the consequences of this viral adoption is that there will be a “commoditization” of smartphones with rapid price erosion to follow. This in turn might even lead to lower margins for Apple and RIM and most major vendors, including those selling Android itself.

In order to test this hypothesis, we need to look at what has been happening to prices.

US Population by Phone Operating System

Since wireless subscriptions in the US are running at about 100% penetration, it’s possible to classify the wireless subscribers as representative of the entire population. So it’s safe to categorize the population of the US by the phone OS they carry.

The left part of the chart shows data from Nielsen that breaks up the population by the OS to date. The right part of the chart shows my estimate for how the platform shares will evolve by this time next year. The non-OS share will still be above 50% but it looks like it might shrink even more rapidly after reaching a tipping point of half the market. (Note these charts do not show quarterly sales but installed base of each OS).

My hypothesis remains that smartphone user bases will be balanced (or fragmented, depending on your point of view) by operator portfolio decisions and chronic constraints on distribution.

Will Apple need to cut margins on the iPhone?

Many comments on and off this blog raise the specter of the inevitable decline in Apple’s margins due to two forces:

  1. The iPhone begins to reach into more markets or points of distribution without exclusivity.
  2. The Android surge will apply competitive pressure forcing Apple’s pricing and hence margins.

The first claim can be countered by observing that Apple has not cut margins when switching from exclusive to non-exclusive distribution in several markets. In fact, Apple made this information public: When Tim Cook was asked in October 2009 earnings concall “So when you go from exclusive to multiple, you don’t change the charge to the carrier?” Cook answered, “Correct.”

The second claim can be countered by observing that innovation trumps pricing every time. When looking back at the three years’ history of the industry there is a clear but counter-intuitive demonstration of the power of innovation in the market.

Whereas one would expect that in a highly competitive market torrid growth would only be possible with lower pricing and hence margins, the opposite is observed in the phone market during the last three years:

[HTC data is over a two year period]

The graph shows that companies that grew the fastest had the highest margins, and the companies that grew the slowest had the lowest margins. The trend line in the graph above is precisely orthogonal to what would be expected in a commodity market.

The orthogonality of growth vs. margin points to the effect of innovation in this market. In a non-commoditized market (i.e. one where usable improvements in a product are quickly absorbed and highly valued) high growth and high margins are correlated.

In a commodity market (i.e. one where improvements in a product are neither absorbed nor valued) growth can only come at the expense of margins.

Being able to spot when a market tips from innovation-driven disruption to price-driven commodity sales is an essential skill for both investors and managers. It requires a comprehensive and integrated analysis of technology, finance, consumer behavior, competitive forces and a lot of faith in theory to make the right call.

As a keen observer I think the market still has a long way to go before it reaches this tipping point. I don’t see it happening in the next three years (which is just 2 product cycles–the most an outside observer can hope to roadmap).

20% of American subs have a smartphone with 1.2 million switching every month

According to The State of Mobile Apps | Nielsen Wire 21% of American wireless subscribers have a smartphone at Q4 2009, up from 19% in the previous quarter and significantly higher than the 14% at the end of 2008.

A previous Comscore survey showed US smartphone penetration at about 17%.

If we were to blend the data to a rough estimate, I would say it’s fair to assume 20% penetration.  The total number of subscribers in the US is about 234 million, which makes for 46.8 million smartphone users.

This still leaves 80% or 187.2 million non-smartphone users.

The share gain of 6%/yr. means another 1.2 million Americans are switching into a smartphone every month.  Another decade and the non-smartphone market will simply be gone.

With AT&T lowering the barriers of entry with data plan pricing and with other operators matching, don’t be surprised if it happens sooner.

As saturation begins around 50% to 60% penetration, price competition will intensify.  That takes the tipping point to about 2013.

Estimating third and fourth quarter iOS shipments

In the 2011 Annual Report(10K) published October 26th Apple states:

The Company anticipates utilizing approximately $8.0 billion for capital expenditures during 2012, including approximately $900 million for retail store facilities and approximately $7.1 billion for product tooling and manufacturing process equipment, and corporate facilities and infrastructure, including information systems hardware, software and enhancements.

The history of these expenditures is shown below (the blue bars are statements from 10K reports including the one above shown as the right-most bar): Three 10Q reports so far this fiscal year have given us updates on asset values and the change in these values are shown as the right-most yellow bar. The asset value change suggests $3.9 billion has been spent so far of the $7.1 billion budgeted. Thus we can estimate that about $3.2 billion remains to be spent in the fourth fiscal quarter (thus bringing the yellow bar to parity with the blue bar in the chart above–a parity that was achieved or exceeded for five out of the last six years).

Assuming $200 million of the fourth fiscal quarter budget will be for land and buildings[1] results in an estimated $3 billion remaining for product tooling and manufacturing process equipment and data centers.

The history of spending for various cost centers is shown below.[2]