Some things remain true: Markets always shift and the lord giveth and the lord taketh. In the mobile handset industry we have seen Ericsson with 30%+ share of the market and then fall into oblivion before creating a joint venture with Sony and rising like the bird Phoenix. Does anyone remember the impact of the Vodafone terminal specifications to OEMs less than half a decade ago, for which even Nokia bent over backwards in the end? How come this changed so rapidly? Well, consumers change their minds. The industry too shifts between vertical and horizontal structures in a helical pattern. There is always a search for the next killer feature that will lead into a new shift powering market dynamics, but seldom is it a feature that creates that shift in balance but something completely different.
Consider first an example from another industry the automotive market. The last few years that market has undergone a feature renaissance , the killer features being environmental impact (look at the success of the Toyota Prius) and localization (i.e. with built in GPS). The previous killer feature was segmenting the car products into clear value propositions like SUVs, family cars, sports cars, etc. Before that it was hardware being able to build cars and ship them over the planet.
The shift of the millennium: from hardware to software
In the mobile handset industry we saw the shift in market differentiation, from hardware to software some years ago; until the end of 1999 all the big OEMs were more or less focusing on hardware. Technology differentiation was determined by how small you could make the phone, how good network reception you could achieve, and so on. In the beginning of this millennium a shift began; software became much more important. In 1998 Symbian was formed as a partnership between Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola and Psion. In 1999 J2ME was announced. The demand for software engineers surged.
It wasn t that hardware didn t matter or that it was commoditized. It wasn t that software hadn t mattered earlier either just that gradually software became more important than hardware. It takes years until we notice the difference, as it takes years to build a good software platform.
The next shift: from software to segmentation
We saw a similar shift last year, in 2006. In the third quarter of 2006 the average selling price (ASP) for several handset OEMs decreased considerably. Except one; Sony Ericsson who instead increased not only its handset ASP but also its market share. As argued earlier, increasing market share often leads to decreasing ASP, so why was Sony Ericsson an exception?
I would argue that Sony Ericsson found the new differentiator: vertical segments. A vertical segment is really just a product proposition that occupies a niche segment of the market. The more niche and targeted you can make any product, the more valuable the target consumer will find it and is thus willing to pay more for it.
The core handset differentiation shifts over time and eventually sinks under the value line .
The complexity of creating vertical segments
Designing a product to appeal to a target customer group as well as possible is important as long as that group is big enough to provide a return on investment. Today mobile handset tailoring and customizing is not an easy task and investments are substantial. There are three essential elements to creating a vertical handset proposition:
- User Research: finding out what the customer segments want and to translate this into requirements
- Supply-Demand Prediction and Logistics Handling: balancing supply and demand in a cost efficient and operationally responsive way
- Product Flexing: to cost efficiently create multiple products according to requirement with minimal impact to time to market, development cost, and bill of material
The first two elements are competences taught in most marketing classes, but the third is specific to each (non-commoditized) industry. In the case of the mobile handset industry, this is the hardest part as it takes years to platformize handset software and hardware. Nokia has mastered the top two elements, but for some reason the inside of their phones look the same independently if it is game, business or multimedia that drives the phone. Sony Ericsson on the other hand was able to balance all three to a level which was in part responsible for their increase in handset ASP last year.
The next wave of differentiation?
Of course there will be a new differentiator when the art of segmentation has been mastered. We are already seeing open source as a threat to the ones that relied on the traditional model of software development. In markets where no new features can be added to the product the value lies in design, brand and product marketing, as is the case in eye-wear and watches. But surely there must be more features to add in mobile handsets, right?!
So where should we look for the next wave of differentiation? Undoubtedly OEMs will continue improving handset segmentation and user-centered design. However, I would argue that the next differentiating characteristics in mobile handsets will be delivery of True Personalization and the ability to cater to Multi-Sided Markets.
True Personalization is really about making the target segment so small that it becomes more or less one person (and I am not talking about ringtones, themes, mobile charms, and stickers). When Japan introduced number portability, many believed that the churn would grow immensely. It didn t, and I think one of the reasons is that DoCoMo had introduced soft walled gardens like personal email and i-mode services that users had attached themselves to earlier.
Think about it: If you had to change your email address to move to a Dell, HP or Mac instead of your current IBM/Lenovo, would you change? The OEM that is able to create an identity that resides within your mobile that is easily personalizable by the user and moved to new devices within the same brand, will definitely see less churn. I know a lot of people who don t change phones (even within the brand) because it is such an hassle to configure and move bookmarks, contacts, rss-feeds, contacts, settings, etc, and that some things like sms and email is not even transferable.
When the user is able to micro segment and truly personalize her own device she will never switch! Why do you think Nokia created the Nokia LifeBlog?
Catering to Multi-Sided Markets
Mobile phones will increasingly resemble platforms, but no one in the manufacturing part of the value chain will want a new Wintel, i.e. a singular platform. The manufacturer-operator battle is clear and a dividing line exists between the two the players above this line (operators and service providers) want all handsets to be the same for their applications, services, advertisements, etc. The players below (the handset OEM) don t want to become too platformized and end up like set-top-box manufacturers (I love asking people what the brand or even manufacturer of their set-top box is. Many answer TiVo or some other non-manufacturer; little knowing or caring about that it is built in Taiwan or China.
The way forward: handset OEMs are either building services or service platforms of their own, or are creating a flexible white label solution for third parties. Look at Nokia Ad Service, Content Discoverer as well as Motorola s Screen3. Rumors say that Google is having close talks with LG and Samsung, two hardware centric manufacturers, who should watch out for platformization. Why would Motorola not just use uiOne and why does Three remove the Nokia Active Standby? Because being able to enable third parties to monetize the mobile platform, but keeping control of the user experience will be a promising post sales revenue stream.