The PC clones of the post-PC era

Since I spend most of my time thinking about what will happen, at the end of each year, rather than looking forward I like to look back to see how wrong I’ve been. The great thing about being wrong is that you learn something. Especially if you use a foundational theory to tie concepts together. Theory building is all about finding anomalies that adjust and improve it.

Fortunately, exactly one year ago, on December 30 2009 I wrote an article asking if Android was disruptive. It turned out to be the right question to ask for 2010.

What have I learned since?

My main argument in late 2009 was aimed at the reaction of the recently launched Nexus One. A product hailed as disruptive to mobile operators. I did not see it that way. In that respect I was right. The distribution juggernaut any phone platform faces stopped the Nexus One dead in its tracks.

I wrote:

Here’s the problem: since mobile broadband is by all accounts not good enough, it cannot be disrupted. Operators are very critical in building out this new mobile computing future and they are investing and will reap rewards. Bitpipe models will only emerge after 4G when there will be ubiquitous high speed networks and competition will shift away from coverage and more to price and convenience of plans.

What is happening instead of operator disruption is that mobile voice which is more than good enough is being disrupted. Businesses built around mobile voice (e.g. handset vendors who have not developed a viable business model around data) will simply evaporate and their profits will condense around entrants who have mobile computing platforms.

So the operators are as strong as ever. But the Android platform lived to fight on, regardless of the Nexus one. And it grew in ways I did not anticipate. I had expected integrated players to maintain a large share because they would be able to improve the product more rapidly than modular vendors (and assuming that the product needed improving).

Google is moving on this opportunity but they are not executing in a way that ensures they control the future platform due to the their being on the wrong side of the modular/integrated dichotomy.

So Android grew but it’s not yet creating profits. It is perhaps laying the foundation for future profits and defending existing profits for Google but it is not yet a big profit center[1]. That is a cause for worry. Disruptors need to be hungry for profits and patient for growth.

I concluded:

Android will disrupt but I expect it will take 10 to 15 years. The life cycle of a new global network generation rollout is about 10 years. We’re in the middle stage of the 3G cycle that traces its beginnings to early this decade. 4G will take another 10 years.

Given what’s happened this year does this forecast still hold?

Mainly yes. I stand by the notion that operators will be in the driver’s seat for a few years to come. However Android has grown in an unexpected way: adoption by unbranded or relatively unknown vendors selling in emerging markets.

The Grey (market) Elephant in the room

Until 2010, it was very difficult to sell a phone without a recognizable brand. This is because brands helped overcome purchase anxiety for those buying a device for the first time. Brands mean trust and the lack of brand meant risk. Those who cannot afford to make purchase mistakes are more likely to lean on brands than the affluent.

But 2010 has seen a shift away from device brand value and more toward platform and function value. This shift was largely unforeseen and is very disruptive.

The fact one in three phones are sold from “other” unbranded vendors like ZTE, Huawei and G’Five is a bombshell. Right now they’re all selling voice products, but I predict that will not last long.

All those vendors are likely to adopt Android and in doing so will explode the low end of the market. They may even crush the branded voice-oriented market.

This growth can be slowed by operators but market forces will be very strong. These devices sell in grey markets and are often unlicensed, unbranded, untaxed and unregulated (and may even be illegal due to the absence of IMEI numbers).

So this is the real wild card for 2011: unbranded devices running Android could be the PC clones of the post-PC era. Will this phenomenon last or will the brands fight back? If they fight, the only weapon they could wield is innovation.

[1] Mobile efforts at Google are generating over $1 billion in revenues per quarter however these efforts include various other assets including AdMob which was acquired for $750 million. Furthermore, the headcount for Android and these other efforts is not small. I’ve heard as many as 3000 people are devoted to Google’s mobile efforts.