The phone market in 2012: a tale of two disruptions

During the first quarter this year HTC, RIM and Nokia all surprised investors with bad news. The effect is evident in the share price of these companies which, in the case of RIM and Nokia is around book value, and in the case of HTC, neared 12 month lows and a 70% drop from peak.

These “misses” in earnings and expectations are on top of the already woeful news from Sony Ericsson and Motorola, which have not had profits for years and LG, which has been borderline since late 2009.

In combination, this seems to imply a dearth of profits in an industry that is, by all measures, booming. Units are up 7% with smartphones up 47%. Revenues are up 20% and overall profits are up 52%. This are exceptionally strong numbers. Few industries can measure growth in double digits.

So if the industry is booming but the majority of participants in the industry are loss making (and surprisingly so) then what is going on? There are two answers: new market disruption and low end disruption.

The new market disruption is the migration of a large number of demanding customers away from phones-as-voice-products to phones-as-computing-products. The low-end disruption is the migration of a large number of less demanding customers from branded phones to unbranded, commodity phones.

The New Market Disruption

The new market disruption is evidenced by the shift of fortunes to Apple and Samsung and away from every other device maker. Here is the profit picture:

Of the vendors tracked (public companies who report mobile phone divisional performance), Apple obtained 73% of operating profits, Samsung 26% and HTC 1% [1][2].

The “share of profit” picture is potentially misleading because it could imply that the profits available are a constant. They’re not. The absolute profits picture below shows how the industry actually expanded available profits by quite a lot. Two years ago the vendors generated profits of $5.3 billion in the first quarter  and last quarter they generated $14.4 billion.

Seen this way, the story isn’t so much that Apple “took the profits from the incumbents”. Rather, it’s that Apple created a vast new pool of profits. And one need not look far to find out where they came from: operators. These profits were mostly carrier premiums for the iPhone 4S.

Before shedding tears for operators, consider that although this does amount to a current transfer of profits from carriers, the decision is a popular one. Hundreds of operators have made it. It’s unlikely that they all colluded to be robbed. Indeed, they willingly hand over these premiums because the iPhone ensures a competitive advantage or preserves their customer base from churning. The calculations that go into a decision to range the iPhone are compelling enough that 250 operators made the decision (though, crucially, there are still 250 who have not).

Following this value proposition to its logical conclusion would suggest that the industry is rewarding those who can supply computers-as-phones which preserve the cash flows of what is essentially a trillion dollar data services business. Vendors which cannot offer this solution saw their businesses implode. At least on the high end.

The low end disruption

Simultaneous with this shift of the high end to smartphones-as-app-and-service-platforms came an explosion of growth in unbranded phones. As Apple led and most brands followed the new market, the old market of voice-oriented phones was abandoned to new entrants offering cheap “good enough” phones. Nokia tried to preserve its volumes and margins there but it’s becoming increasingly difficult.

The following chart shows how the “Other” vendors have come to make up about 44% of the market.

Note that although this “feature phone” segment is not growing, it is still a large market (250 million units a quarter). The entrants in this market are numerous (perhaps in the thousands) and they are offering white label and unlicensed knock-off products. They are also offering unregulated (i.e. without IMEI numbers) products which are technically illegal and sold mainly in underdeveloped countries which have no incentives to enforce regulations.

This is a consequence of feature phones reaching the point of being “good enough”. The feature set and quality are adequate for voice, text, games and even media playback and are priced at $30 or less.

This commoditization of the low end is pressuring what would normally be the fallback cushion under an underperforming smartphone business. The crisis for the incumbents comes from not only being unable to shift to the new market as fast as needed but also from not having cash flows from a low end that was thought to be sustaining.

This combination of two disruptions is why we see an explosively large and growing market failing to reward all but two of the participants.[3]


  1. You can download, view and interact with a motion chart for the industry data here. All data is sourced from company filings except for some estimates where data is missing.
  2. Operating profits are sales minus cost of sales minus operational expenses attributed to the business. When not available, opex is estimated as a percent of total in proportion to sales. Note that operational income excludes taxes, depreciation and other capitalized costs.
  3. We cannot say that the thousands of low end entrants are unprofitable. They are probably enough profits to sustain them and even to attract more entrants, but we have to also recognize that there are likely to be very low margins.