Lead, innovate or assemble: three choices for handset OEMs as mobile starts to look like the PC industry

[Android has triggered more changes to the mobile industry than anyone had imagined. Research Director, Andreas Constantinou looks at the profound changes taking place and how the handset OEM market is shaping up].

Mobile industry connoisseurs used to smirk at the notion that the mobile industry was any similar to the PC world. How can the two industries be any similar when the software, services, channels to market, operator control, regional economics, and range of experiences were all so different.

This is so last decade. The march of software has irreversibly changed the economics of value in the mobile industry. Google’s Android and Apple’s iPhone have caused disruptions that threw all analyst predictions off the chart. Industry pundits used to project a linear growth for ‘open’ operating systems (Symbian, Windows Mobile et al) that saw them take over an increasingly large share of mobile handsets sold.

But the evolution of software has been anything but linear in the last two years; Google’s Android, an operating system that was greeted with skepticism in 2008 become a launchpad for just about everyone working within the mobile industry.

Network operators/carriers saw Android as an opportunity to reduce their dependency on two players, Apple and RIM whose stellar sales were depriving operators from any negotiating power. Operators have always tried to divide and conquer amongst their suppliers, for example working in 2002 with HTC and Windows Mobile to reduce their dependency on Nokia, or in 2007 using a three-pronged OS strategy (WinMo, Symbian, Linux) to reduce their dependency on Microsoft. Android allows operators to deliver iPhone or BlackBerry –like devices at much higher levels of customisation and at much lower subsidies.

Handset OEMs saw in Android the opportunity to develop iPhone clones at less-than-iPhone prices for operator customers. In 2008-9 most Android projects were kicked off by operators, while in 2010 OEMs are investing in Android big-time. LG and Samsung, who used legacy real-time OSes for 90% of their high-end phones in 2009 have now 10s of Android projects in the pipeline for 2010-11.

Software developers saw the opportunity to enter the mobile ecosystem of downloadable apps – in the role model set by Apple’s App Store – in the most approachable and developer-friendly platform ever created for mobile.

But the biggest changes are yet to appear.

Android has triggered a mass arrival of 10s of ODMs from China and Taiwan eager to create me-too touch-screen handsets. Qualcomm and Mediatek, the chipset vendors powering the majority of feature phones today have launched or preparing to introduce out-of-the-box Android designs that reduce the time to market for Android handsets to 6-9 months (or circa 3 months once Mediatek’s design hits the market). Platform development for Android has dropped to the $300 per engineer-day mark, while big outsourced development centers are being set up in Asia dedicated to Android handset development. All these developments will allow Android touch-screen handsets to hit the €150 mark retail price.

The new world order: Lead, innovate or assemble.
The developments triggered by Android have made it possible to replicate the economics of the PC industry, leaving mobile industry insiders dumbfounded. Last decade’s rules and role models no longer apply. Instead there are three role models emerging for handset manufacturers in the world of commoditised software: leaders, innovators and assemblers.

Assemblers. Dozens of contract manufacturers can now take Android and deliver fully-featured, high-end handsets at made-to-measure requirements, but at price points and wow-factors only enjoyed previously by top-5 manufacturers. Think iPhone me-too experience at €150 retail price.

Innovators. The price pressure from assemblers will force the top-5 OEMs to innovate-or-die. With the innovation moving out of the pure user interface domain, widgets or touch innovations or no longer the ‘wow’ factor. To claim higher prices at €300 (and a respectable margin above the BOM) the top-10 OEMs will have to innovate.

Handset innovation lies in three elements: firstly, novel industrial design (think Nokia’s ‘listick’ or sports handsets of 2006) that will break the boring mould of today’s form factors and plastics. Secondly, novel use of sensors that will enable user interactions only imagined so far. Thirdly, use of shelf space within the commonly used applications (idle screen, menus, browser chrome, app store) to promote and monetise from third party content. Yet innovation will have to be balanced with application compatibility. Already we ‘ve seen how Android implementations have created fragmentation headaches for developers.

Leaders. To reach the top-tier of handset pricing (circa €500) handset manufacturers have to deliver new product experiences. This is the privilege enjoyed by Apple, RIM (and Amazon Kindle to an extent) who have integrated hardware, software and services under the same roof. You can buy Mediatek-powered iPhone clones in China (Shanzai in local speak) for $75, but the experience is laughable to an iPhone user. Only by controlling and integrating hardware, software and services under the same roof can a manufacturer deliver new product experiences that can command top-tier retail prices.

Mass producers. Naturally, emerging markets where retail prices are at circa €50 make up the majority of the mobile handset market – at least revenue wise. And while assemblers can produce low-cost devices, they won’t have the economies of scale to make a profit at €50 retail price. Mass producers, i.e. companies with the supply chain sophistication and negotiating power of Nokia and Mediatek can do that.

The picture that emerges for the mobile handset market in 2015 (the predictable future) is surprising in many ways. We estimate that the top 5% of the market will command as much revenue as the bottom 50%, but with a higher profit – for example Apple and RIM today bring in around 55% of the industry’s profits. The middle two segments (what some observers call mass-market smartphones) will generate much higher revenues.

The mobile industry is starting to look scarily close to the PC industry, both in terms of business models and profit vs revenue patterns.

What do readers think? Is the PC future for mobile inescapable?

– Andreas
you should follow me on twitter: @andreascon