Its been a great run for the smartphone industry, but the party is now coming to an end. As the chart shows, global sales in H1 fell 1% versus 2016, based on Strategy Analytics data:
Samsung and Apple have both seen a major decline in their market share since 2014
Samsung have fallen from a peak of 31% in Q1 2014 to 23% in Q2 this year
Apple has fallen from 20% in Q4 2014 to 12% in Q2
Chinese players have been the main winners, with the Top 3′s share rising from 13% in Q1 2014 to 20%
Apple’s major problem is in China, where it refused to offer a cheaper version of the iPhone to tap into the mass market. Even the 4-inch iPhone SE went on sale in March at $630 for the 64GB version. And Chinese manufacturers have been quicker to add new features such as dual-lens cameras and LED screens. As I noted over a year ago:
“It is only a mater of time before its highly profitable niche marketing strategy comes under full-frontal attack from Korea and China.”
Its Q2 sales fell by a third versus last year in value terms, with local Chinese manufacturers turning up the heat in terms of price and features as China Daily notes:
“Due to the limited upgrades on the existing flagship—iPhone 6s/6s Plus compared with the previous generations and the low demand of the newly launched small-sized iPhone SE, the company has faced a fierce competition with local smartphone vendors in the medium range market priced between 2,500 yuan ($375) to 3,500 yuan per unit.”
This pattern suggests that the smartphone market is moving into the right-hand side of the Business lifecycle, as shown above:
We can all remember the early Enthusiasts for its phones, who camped out overnight to get their chosen model
The Early Adopters were also keen on the iPhone’s features and the status that it gave, as the market grew
But in the last 2 years, the market has become saturated, and the range of new features has been relatively small
Globally, the smartphone market has peaked, as the 4.1bn people without phones cannot afford the internet
As a result, market drivers have changed from “the excitement of the new” to “affordability and price competitiveness”, particularly since the cost of making a smartphone fell to just $20 in China a year ago.
China’s Xiaomi was the first to offer low-cost and well-featured phones via the internet. But they became distracted with overseas launches and widening their product range beyond phones. As a result, newcomer Oppo now leads the China market with 23% market share, followed by Huawei with 17% and Vivo with 12%. Apple was 4th with just 9%.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the road for Apple. It has long recognised that the market will become commoditised, and has been moving its focus to services and applications. The Apple watch has clearly the potential to build a totally new market in healthcare, if the right value proposition can be developed.
But the message for anyone supplying the smartphone market is obvious. If you can’t provide better and better features at lower and lower costs, and in time to catch the market opportunity, you will be out of business very quickly.
We all now carry around a mini-computer in our pockets – one with more power than those which controlled Apollo 11 when Neil Amstrong first walked on the moon in 1969. In certain parts of the world, there are now more smartphones than toilets, according to Time magazine.
This is raising the spectre of market saturation in the world’s largest market:
- In China, for example, there were 1.3bn users last year – virtually everyone now owns a smartphone
- The length of the upgrade cycle there is rising from the previous 13 months, and sales actually fell 4% in Q4
- Apple’s share price has fallen by a quarter in just 2 weeks, since reporting “signs of economic softness there”
- ARM, the smartphone chip supplier, has seen its share dive 15% in the past 3 days
The chart above, based on Strategy Analytics data, highlights the problems ahead. The market had a record year in 2015, selling 1.44bn handsets. But growth rates have collapsed from 41% at the end of 2013 to 31% in 2014 and just 6% in Q4 2015. It seems almost inevitable that global growth will now follow China and go negative.
This will impact all the major suppliers. Apple has claimed 90%+ of total smartphone income in recent years, and it has a devoted fan base. But even the late Steve Jobs would probably now struggle to come up with “the next new thing” that would excite consumers to rush out and upgrade.
The problem is that the market has run out of potential demand. As I noted in November, there are 4.1bn people in the world who can’t afford a smartphone today. They are the people who have incomes of less than $5/day:
- 1.4bn earn $3-$5/day; 1.6bn earn $1-$3/day and 1bn earn less than $1/day
- Most of the other 3.1bn people in the world already own a smartphone
But the world’s 1000 smartphone suppliers won’t give up easily. Almost inevitably, therefore, we are heading for a major price war, as it is already possible to assemble smartphones for as little as $20.
As the chart shows, the 3 major Chinese players – Huawei, Lenovo and Xiaomi – now have had a global market share of 17.5%. And Samsung with its 20% share (down from 35% in Q3 2013), is clearly in their line of fire. But Apple is bound to be hit as well.
The smartphone market is also probably acting as a leading indicator for many other industries. It highlights how China’s slowdown means there is a vast amount of spare capacity in the world, which won’t ever be needed again.
This also means that deflation is inevitable as price wars intensify.
The smartphone market has been one of the ‘jewels in the crown” of the consumer electronics market. Yet today, it is rushing headlong into the world of the New Normal. We can all learn a lot about the outlook for the global economy from watching its development.
Until recently, the history was of astonishing growth, with the market growing 39% in 2013, for example:
- Samsung was the unquestioned market leader, as the chart shows, with 1/3rd of the market (blue line)
- Apple was a strong No 2, and highly profitable, with its niche market strategy (green)
- China was in 3rd position, with no clear value proposition and several players all struggling for scale (red)
But then in 2014, things began to change quite dramatically. Samsung suddenly found its middle market position being squeezed from both ends. From the top end it was hit by Apple, who finally entered the Chinese market in a major way and pushed its global market share to 20%. And it was hit from the bottom end by companies such as Xiaomi, Lenovo and Huawei selling very similar phones at much lower prices.
Suddenly, Samsung’s value proposition of having a larger screen than Apple, combined with ‘affordable luxury’ pricing, didn’t work so well. Major internal debate is now underway over future strategy. And it seems unlikely the current concept of offering different models for every minor segment, supported by a vast advertising budget, can continue.
In turn, the Korean, Taiwanese and Japanese companies who supply it with components are facing harder times. Sharp of Japan, for example, last week announced a $1.9bn loss and plans to sack one-tenth of its workforce. Korean companies have suffered too, with touchscreen panel manufacturer Iljin Dispay seeing profits fall 62%.
One might have thought that low-end Chinese companies would still be doing well. But they are being hit by the slowdown in their home market, where sales fell by 6% in Q1. In turn, this is forcing a major shift in their strategy.
Lenovo seems to be playing the role of industry consolidator, with the acquisition of Motorola its latest move. But its profits rose just 1% last year, despite a 20% increase in revenue, causing it to cut costs further by moving more sales online – mirroring Xiaomi’s successful strategy.
In turn, Xiaomi is targeting growth outside China, launching a $205 phone for the Indian market and building sales across SEA. In an interesting move, it is also going up-market to compete with Apple with the $483 Mi Note model. It also aims to offer smart wristbands as well as air purifiers via a new online US store later this year.
It is keeping its low price strategy, however, which has given it market leadership in China with a 14% share, ahead of Huawei and Apple at 11%. As the head of Xiaomi Technology said recently:
“We’ve continued to revise our pricing strategy, which is now closest to our production cost“.
These dynamics, of course, are the New Normal in action. Slowing growth, falling prices, intense competition – all played out on a global stage as the impact of China’s new economic policies spreads around the world. In Korea, for example, the Korea Development Institute warned in February:
“Korea faces a similar predicament to Japan in the early 1990s, due in large part to the catch-up of latecomers like China“.
Apple, of course, is still riding high today. But clearly it is only a mater of time before its highly profitable niche marketing strategy comes under full-frontal attack from Korea and China. Its future lies in making a successful shift to applications and services, as I noted when reviewing 2014 results in March.
It is not the hardware of the Apple Watch that will secure Apple’s future, or even its sleek design. Instead, it is aiming to use this and similar products as a pathway to a wholly new business model. It has to hope it can create profitable new application-based markets, based on collecting health and fitness data and connecting to smart home devices.
And, of course, the smartphone market is not alone is facing this New Normal challenge. They are coming to the online and High Street stores near all of us, if they haven’t already arrived.