The mobile services landscape: Can OEMs compete with platform vendors?

[Growing competition and price pressures push handset makers to seek new ways to differentiate. This increasingly means services. VisionMobile Research Partner Michael Vakulenko compares service offerings of leading handset makers, explaining why OEMs will struggle to create meaningful differentiation through services.]

VisionMobile - The mobile services landscape

Remember the Motorola RAZR or the Nokia N95? Long gone are the days when handset hardware was fertile ground for innovation and differentiation. Convergence of device form-factors and equal access to advanced chipset technology pushes the handset market to the brink of deep commoditization.

Focus on smartphones can only provide short-term life support for deteriorating margins. Android opened the floodgates to low-cost assemblers to compete in the smartphone market. Aggressive new-comers, like ZTE, Huawei, Acer and Dell, along with a growing list of previously unknown handset manufacturers, push incumbents deeper and deeper into the commoditisation corner. Differentiation based on services increasingly looks like an attractive solution for many handset OEMs.

Services, services, services
Let’s look at how service offerings of leading handset OEMs stack up against each other. Nokia, Samsung, Apple, RIM, HTC, Motorola and Sony Ericsson (in no particular order) all have service ambitions and will be the subjects of the comparison.

State-of-the-art service offerings go far beyond much-hyped application stores. We ‘ll dig into the following service categories:

– Content retailing services: App stores, music, premium video and billing.
– Cloud services: Cloud-based contact book, cloud synchronization/backup, and device management (i.e. location tracking and remote lock).
– Communication services: Email services (e.g. gmail.com, me.com or nokia.com), instant messaging and video conferencing services
– Location-based services: Maps and navigation
– Advertising: Ownership of an ad network, display ads, multimedia ads and location-based ads.

Since many of the OEMs use Google Android and Windows Phone 7 platforms, we ‘ll also compare OEM service offerings with the ‘native’ services of the platforms.

The table below compares service offerings of different OEMs, as well as smartphone platforms across the above service categories.

VisionMobile - handset manufacturer services

The Leader: Apple
Apple, as usual, is in a league of its own. Apple has an extensive set of services anchored in the well-oiled iTunes content machine and MobileMe cloud services. One glaring omission is location-based services. For now, Apple has to rely on an uncomfortable partnership with Google Maps. There are persistent rumors that Apple develops its own location and mapping services (here and here). We can expect that sooner or later Apple will find its way out of its dependency on Google Maps, launching its own location-based services.

Challengers: Nokia, RIM
The next group of companies are the challengers – Nokia and RIM. Both use integrated models similar to Apple’s, combining proprietary software platforms with proprietary hardware (for now I will ignore the big unknowns of the partnership between Nokia and Microsoft).

Nokia has a comprehensive service portfolio, even compared to Apple. It ranges from the quintessential app store and music service all the way to location-based services and its own ad network. However, Nokia’s execution was weak and the future of Nokia’s services is up in the air following announced the partnership with Microsoft.

In contrast, RIM has a sketchy service portfolio, focused on its best-in-class messaging services. These include push-email, the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and the BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), in addition to the mandatory app store. It looks like RIM continues to focus on hardware and its new QNX operating system. For now, service-based innovation outside messaging takes a back seat for the BlackBerry platform.

Wannabes: Samsung, HTC, Sony-Ericsson and Motorola
Finally, Samsung, HTC, Sony-Ericsson and Motorola are OEMs building smartphones based on the Android and, in some cases, Windows Phone software platforms (Samsung also owns the bada software platform).

While Motorola is strong in cloud services with its MOTOBLUR service, Samsung leads the way in content. The Samsung offer includes music downloads and movie services, bundled with the popular line of Galaxy smartphones and tablets. Due to the licensing terms of content owners, content services have a limited geographical footprint, being available only in North America and Europe.

Overall, the services offering is very mixed for these vendors with piecemeal solutions mostly focused on content and cloud sync services.

Platforms: Android and Windows Phone
Unsurprisingly, Android and Windows Phone offer a comprehensive set of ‘native’ services across all service categories. Google Android is weak in content services compared to Apple and even Windows Phone, but compensates with leading-edge location-based services and a comprehensive ad offering. Windows Phone ‘native’ services leverage Microsoft’s Bing, Live, Zune and Xbox assets having millions of active users.

These ‘native’ services form the basis for platform differentiation and user value proposition for both platforms.

OEMs will struggle to make impact with services
Out of these handset OEMs, only Apple and Nokia come close to the breadth and scale of service offerings provided by platform vendors. It’s really difficult to see how Samsung, HTC, Sony Ericsson and Motorola can create highly differentiating services on the Android or Windows Phone platforms. For them, services will not become a solution for the upcoming wave of commoditization.

Dependency on 3rd party software platforms, lack of scale for making meaningful content deals, conflict of interests with operators and incompatible company DNA will make it extremely difficult for handset OEMs to make an impact with services.

In the words of Nokia’s CEO “Devices are not enough anymore”. No, this quote was not one of Stephen Elop’s, taken from the recent “burning platform” memo – it comes from a speechmadebackin 2007, by then NokiaCEO,OlliPekkaKallasvuo. Nokia realized early that services will play a critical role in handset value proposition. The Finnish OEM has tried hard to reinvent itself and become a hardware+services company.

The rest is history. Nokia found it nearly impossible to reconcile the DNA of a hardware company, which “lives” by device release cycles, with the DNA of a service company that “lives” by developing long term relationships with users, developers and partner ecosystems. If Nokia failed to do so with their vast resources and enviable volume leadership, what are the chances that Samsung, HTC, Sony Ericsson or Motorola will manage it?

– Michael

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[Michael Vakulenko is a Research Partner at VisionMobile. He has been working in the mobile industry for over 16 years, starting his career in wireless in Qualcomm. Michael has a broad experience across many aspects of the mobile industry, including smartphone ecosystems, mobile services, handset software, wireless chipsets and network infrastructure. He can be reached at michael [/at/] visionmobile.com]

Waking the Dragon: The Rise of Android in China

[Android is leading the smartphone revolution in Western Markets. But what about China, the country with the biggest mobile user base? Guest author Hong Wu analyses the state of Android in China – from chipset vendors to software developers – and how the dragon is waking up.]
The article is also available in Chinese.

The Rise of Android in China

HuaQiang Road, ShenZhen, GuangDong, China, an ordinary weekend.

At 10 o’clock in the morning, there are few pedestrians around. Sanitation workers are cleaning up hundreds of deserted mobile phone packages and plastic bags near mobile phone supermarkets, along with bundles upon bundles of mobile phone manuals, and even a few dozens of broken CDs, with labels showing clearly the words “HTC” or “SonyEricsson”.

Clerks in more than a dozen bank branches on HuaQiang Road and ZhenHua Road are busy refilling cash into their ATMs. In the next 5 hours or so, those bank clerks and ATMs will be responsible for hundreds of millions of Yuan in cash transactions. Yes, cash and stock products are the rules of transaction here. This commercial business district, often called as “HuaQiangBei” (or north of HuaQiang), is the strike-it-rich spot for many poor grassroots classes in ShenZhen. This neighbourhood has become the global hub for consumer electronics.

Android has recently become the hot topic within HuaQiangBei district. Sales figures of Android phones have been climbing on a daily basis at YuanWang Digital City. Most of these Android phones use Qualcomm’s chipset, while only a few of them run a chipset that’s made in China.

Nearby, at MingTong Digital City, one can find heaps of ShanZhai (山寨) mobile phones on sale (ShanZhai refers to Chinese imitation and pirated brands and goods, particularly electronics). There only a few Android phone models on display, but customers keep coming back asking for more. In the meantime, the software engine that powers ShanZhai smartphones has shifted from Windows Mobile to Android, and most of they are using chipsets that are made in China.

A 15-minute drive from HuaQiangBei business district, at CheGongMiao business district, are the headquarters of dozens of mobile phone design companies, who are in the midst of the mobile food chain. On a daily basis, engineers here crank out some very exotic prototype phones using MediaTek’s chipset solutions. Since 2009 when Android caught fire, sales guys from MediaTek, HiSilicon, Rockchip, Actions-Semi, and other chipset vendors are arriving day after day, hoping to sell their solutions and get a piece of the pie from the Android revolution.

Once an Android-based white label design is out, the phones will be manufactured in factories at Bao’An ShenZhen and LongGang districts. The plastics are then stamped with the right retail brand stickers, and put on the shelf at the consumer electronics crossroads that is HuaQiangBei.

The MediaTek powerhouse

MediaTek (MTK) sells between 300 to 400 million chipsets a year for 2G handsets, and is the predominant force behind low cost phones in China. MTK’s foray into the smartphone market began in February 2009 when they released the MT6516 design, at that time based on Windows Mobile 6.5 OS. MT6516 is a dual core solution; the application processor is an ARM 9 running at 416MHz, while the baseband processor is an ARM 7, running at 280MHz, supporting 2G (GSM/EDGE). This solution suffers somewhat in terms of performance when compared to the Qualcomm’s MSM7200, but its BOM is lower.

One step up, the MT6516 deluxe version includes a 2.8” QVGA resistive touch screen, 2MP camera, GPS, WiFi, and Bluetooth silicon, with a quoted wholesale price of $90. The basic MT6516 version with no touch screen or camera is quoted at $60. Note that approximately $10 of that quote goes towards the Windows Mobile license fee. In other words, expect prices to go down considerable with an Android design.

Despite its market mussle, MediaTek didn’t anticipate that the Android revolution would arrive so soon. For example, MediaTek didn’t join OHA until 2010 while the first MTK Android handsets are just making their first steps into the Chinese market (there is a rumour that a leading Android OEM had earlier veto’ed MTK’s entry into the OHA to avoid price competition).

TongXinDa in ShenZhen has been the first ODM to release an Android phone based on MTK’s MT6516 solution, the “TongXinDa TOPS-A1”. The phone boasts unique features such as dual SIM cards (both GSM and CDMA, and both at active states), a dual boot system (Windows Mobile 6.5 and Android 1.6 both stored in ROM) with 256MB RAM and ROM, and a 400×240 screen resolution. The phone ad is shown below (note that the HTC logo is a fake).

But these are just the first steps of Android as it awakes the Chinese dragon. The full MTK Android 2.1 solution won’t be out in mass production until the end of 2010.

More competition at low-cost Android phones

Rockchip, a design vendor based in FuZhou, China, showed its RK28 solution at HongKong Electronics Show in 2010, focusing on Android tablets and smartphones.

Rockchip is a homegrown chipset design company which conquered the market of MP3 portable media players with its RK26 and RK27 series. In 2009 Rockchip announced its foray into smartphone business with the RK2808 Android solution, but was not widely adopted due to chip heating problems and performance issues.

In a second effort at the smartphone market, Rockchip released its RK2816 solution in 2010, running on an ARM 9 application process at 600Mhz and an NXP baseband chip. The RK28 series is not as tightly integrated as MTK’s MT6516. MTK put both applications and baseband into one single chip, while RK28 used Infineon for their baseband. RK28 series’ advantage lies at its inheritance of multimedia technologies from Rockchip, with hardware decoding of 720p H.264 video.

Rockchip’s RK28 design has been taken up by Ramos (Blue Devil) to power an smartphone device under the model name W7. The device runs Android 1.5, sports a 4.8” 800×480 resistive touch screen, and is intended as competitor to iPod Touch, with a focus on video media playback features. BuBuGao is another OEM planning to deliver cheap smartphones using the RK28 solution.

In the tablet space, Actions-Semi has been designing a new chipset based on the mISP 74K kernel, running Android 2.1. Marketed under the EBOX moniker, the company aims to head-to-head competition with the iPad with support for H.264, MPEG-4, DivX and Xvid hardware decoding at up to 1080p resolution. Such specs are unheard of among current Android solutions.

Around five years ago, phones based on MTK chipset shook up Chinese cellphone market that was dominated by Nokia, Motorola, Samsung and other local brands like Bird, TCL and XiaXin. MTK enabled phones to be sold at very low prices while still boasting advanced features, including exotic ones like eight stereo speakers or 365 days of standby battery life.

Today, most local brands are gone, and the remaining few have reverted to using MTK chipsets for their phones. International OEM brands have to slash prices on their mid-end to low-end phones in order to compete in this fierce cellphone market. MTK’s entry into high end smartphones using Android may certainly repeat the history we witnessed five years ago. Android phones running FroYo selling for under $100? Maybe just a few months away.

Android Developers in high demand

With such a rapid growth of Android-related activities, Android developers are in hot demand today in China. A 2-year Android pro can command up to 20,000 Yuan (close to $3,000) per month; whereas a 10-year J2EE veteran makes probably the same salary if not less. Companies, big and small, are busy scouting for Android talent, but challenged due to the small pool of qualified engineers.

At ifanr.com we recently conducted a survey, with the help of the China Android Dev group (over 1,400 members, 18,000 messages, the largest and most active discussion group for Chinese Android developers) to capture the demographics of Android developers in China. Our survey received over 500 valid responses with some revealing insights into the state of Android developers in China:

In terms of demographics, over 80% of respondents are between 20 to 30 years old, while another 10% is between 31 to 35 years. These are pretty young and dynamic groups of developers.

When asked about how many years of mobile development experience they have, close to 40% are just getting started. And another close to 50% of respondents are within 0-2 years of experience, which is to be expected, given that Android is a two-year-old platform.

In terms of their role in Android development, 37% of survey respondents are part time developers, while over 40% are professional developers. Only 10% are students while about 15% are still holding out to see how Android progresses.

It’s also worth pointing out that over 60% of respondents are individual developers, a.k.a. one-man teams, while over 90% work in teams made up of less than 50 developers. There are companies with more than 100 developers, mostly likely big telecoms like China Mobile, as well as handset manufacturers and design houses.

Given that we targeted Android developers, almost 80% of respondents have developed on Android. We also see healthy shares of iOS, J2ME, Windows Mobile, and Symbian. Based on current trends, we can foresee Android and iOS commanding larger market share going forward, while J2ME, Windows Mobile and Symbian share will shrink further.

Over 45% of respondents have not yet published apps on Google’s Android Market. This is mostly because Android Market and Google Checkout do not yet support Chinese regions. This is a well known issue; there is a large number of developers in China wanting to publish apps onto the Market who can’t; for example many of them have to set up an overseas bank account in order to register and pay for the Market registration fee. It’s a major hassle for individual developers, and where hopefully Google has a mitigation to offer in the near future (PayPal integration perhaps?).

In terms of revenue models, about two thirds of paid apps are using ad banners, while the other one third are using pay-per-download according to the results of our survey. As for the types of ad networks used, Google AdSense comes out on top with nearly 50% of votes. AdMob comes in second with nearly 30% votes. Wooboo, Youmi, and Casee, ad networks from China, are also making strides here.

The level of satisfaction from app revenues is evenly distributed, with 20% of respondents saying they are not doing well and losing money, and 18% saying they are extremely satisfied and doing well or optimistic about the future (the rest 60% is for people who do not make money from apps).

In terms of go-to-market channels, Google’s Android Market tops with more than half of the share. China Mobile’s Mobile Market (MM) is also popular among developers. MOTO SHOP4APPS is surprisingly getting 5% (or 10% among the ones submitted).

Overall, Android has seen explosive growth in China. More and more developers are joining the ranks daily. However, due to the limitations of Android Market and Google Checkout in China, many developers are turning to alternative markets and payment gateways.

In the operator camp, China Mobile is making a big splash trying to woo developers onto its Android-variant, the OMS/OPhone platform. HTC and Motorola are also pushing their own app store agenda.

The Android ecosystem in China is still a sleeping dragon, but is waking up day by day. There will be more ad networks, more app stores, and more payment gateways coming out in the foreseeable future before consolidation moves in. Android in China is probably at its most exciting stage right now.

– Hong

[Hong Wu is a seasoned mobile app developer based in Silicon Valley, US. He’s currently building an awesome product that hopes will make TVs enjoyable again. He’s also a core member of ifanr.com, the leading new media blog site in China that focuses on mobile Internet industry, smartphones, gadgets, and exciting startups in China. You can contact Hong at lordhong /at/ gmail.com or follow @lordhong on Twitter.]

The many faces of Android fragmentation

[Android fragmentation is only getting started. Research Director Andreas Constantinou breaks down the 3 dimensions of Android fragmentation and argues how Android will become a victim of its own success]
The article is also available in Chinese.

There’s been plenty of talk of Android fragmentation, but little analysis of its meaning and impacts.

As far as definitions go, the best way to look at fragmentation is not from an API viewpoint, but from an application viewpoint; if you take the top-10,000  (free and paid) apps on Android, how many of these run on all the Android-powered phones?

For Google’s Android team, fragmentation is what keeps them up at night. Fragmentation reduces the addressable market of applications, increases the cost of development and could ultimately break the developer story around Android as we ‘ll see.

Google’s CTS (compatibility test spec) is predicated on ensuring that Market apps run on every Android phone. Android handsets have to pass CTS in order to get access to private codelines, the Market or the Android trademark as we covered in our earlier analysis of Google’s 8 control points – and yes, Google controls what partners do with Android, contrary to the Engadget story.

The 3 dimensions of Android fragmentation
Many observers would point to fragmentation arising as a result of the open source (APL2) license attached to the Android public source code. Reality however is much more complex. There are 3 dimensions of Android fragmentation:

1. Codebase fragmentation. Very few companies have taken the approach of forking the public Android codebase, as permitted under the APL2 license; Google innovates so fast (5 major versions in 12 months) that once you fork, the costs of keeping up-to-date with Google’s tip-of-tree are increasing prohibitively over time (Nokia found out the hard way by forking WebKit and then regretting it).

The main fork of the Android codebase is by China Mobile (the world’s biggest operator with over 500M subscribers) who has outsourced Android development to software company Borqs. China Mobile cares less about keeping up-to-date with the latest Android features as the China market operates as an island where cheap, fake (Shanzai) handsets are predominant. Mediatek, a leading vendor of chipsets shipping in 200-300 million handsets per year plans to make Android available, which could mean another major fork. Cyanogen and GeeksPhone also fork the Android public codeline, but they are designed for a niche of tech-savvy Android fans.

2. Release fragmentation. Google has released 5 major updates to Android in 12 months (1.5, 1.6, 2.0, 2.1 and recently 2.2), all of which introduce major features and often API breaks. You may notice how accessing the Android Market from a 1.6 versus a 2.1 handset gives you a different set of apps. So much for forward compatibility. AndroidFragmentation.com (a community project) has documented several cases of release fragmentation arising from releases which break APIs (e.g. 2.0 SDK breaks older contact apps) or from inconsistent OEM implementations (e.g. receiving multicast messages over WiFi is disabled for most HTC devices).

Release fragmentation is the victim of Google’s own speed of innovation – and Andy Rubin has hinted there’s more major releases coming out in the next 6 months. It’s clearly a sign of how young, agile Internet companies know how to develop software much better that companies with a mobile legacy; major Symbian versions take 12-18 months to release.

Release fragmentation is particularly acute due to the lack limited availability of an automatic update mechanism much like that found on the iPhone. We call the phenomenon ‘runtime aging’ and it is directly responsible for increasing the cost of developing applications. Tier-1 network operators see handsets in their installed base with browsers which are 1-6 years old – that’s how hairy it can get for mobile content (and software) development companies. [update: we understand that certain Android handsets come with a firmware update (FOTA) solution available from Google and other FOTA vendors, but it is installed reactively (i.e. to avoid handset recalls) rather than proactively (i.e. to update all handsets to the latest OS flavour)].

Google itself reports that the Android installed base is split between devices running 1.5, 1.6 and 2.1 versions (or at least for those devices accessing the Android Market). The detailed breakdown as of mid May 2010 is as follows:

Release fragmentation is also arises out of Google’s elitist treatment of its OEM partners. Google will pick and choose which private codeline is available to which OEM based on commercial criteria (contrary to Michael Gartenberg’s story). Take for example how Sony Ericsson’s X10 (running on Android 1.6) came to market after the Nexus One (running on Android 2.1). Ironically, both handsets were made by HTC. [correction: the X10 was developed by Sony Ericsson Japan]

3. Profile fragmentation. Android was designed for volume smartphones. But it arrived at an opportune time – just after the iPhone launch and just as consumer electronics manufacturers were looking at how to develop connected devices. This resulted in two effects that Google hadn’t planned for:

– Android was taken up by all tier-1 (and many tier-2) operators/carriers hoping to develop iPhone-like devices at cheaper prices (i.e. lower subsidies) and greater differentiation. That meant that while operators funded Android’s adolescent years (2008-2010), they niched Android handsets to high-end features and smartphone price points.

– Android is now being taken up by 10s of consumer electronics manufacturers, from car displays and set-top boxes to tablets, DECT phones and picture frames. The Archos internet tablet was just the beginning. Each of these devices has very different requirements and therefore results in different platform profiles.

The timing of Android’s entry into the market has therefore resulted in two implications related to fragmentation.

Firstly, Android’s official codebase isn’t suited for mass-market handsets (think ARM9 or ARM11, 200-500MHz). To get to really large volumes (100M+ annually), Google will need to sanction a second Android profile for mass-market devices. This is a Catch-22, as a second profile is needed to hit large volumes, but it would also break the Android developer story.

Secondly, every new platform profile designed for different form factors (in-car, set-top box, tablet, etc) will create API variations that will be hard to manage. That’s one of the key reasons behind the Google TV initiative and the Open Embedded Software Foundation. However even Google can’t move fast enough to coordinate (manage?) the 10s of use cases and form factors emerging for Android.

All in all, Android fragmentation is going to get far worse, as Android becomes a victim of its own success.But hey, would you expect to have a single app (and a single codebase) that runs on your TV, phone and car?

And there the opportunity lies for tools vendors to provide app porting tools, compatibility test tools and SDKs to help bridge the gap across the eventual jungle of Android fragmentation. And for those looking to better understand the Android commercials we offer a half-day training course on the commercial dynamics behind Android.

What do readers think? Do you have any fragmentation stories to share?

– Andreas
you should follow me on twitter: @andreascon