Guy Agin

Behind the Smartphone Craze: redrawing the map of mobile platforms

Behind the Smartphone Craze: redrawing the map of mobile platforms

[Thought Android and iPhone are taking over the world? Think again. The device platforms map is more fragmented than ever, while the media hype distorts the commercial reality. Guest blogger, Guy Agin goes behind the Smartphone craze to redraw the landscape of mobile platforms]

The Smartphone Craze
The other day I was reading some of the usual hype-induced reports on the Smartphone revolution. Wanting to put things into perspective I pulled out some old Smartphone forecasts from 2004-2005 by the likes of IDC, Informa and Ovum.

In those pre-historic days the main Smartphone contenders were Symbian and Windows. Blackberry was still an insignificant niche, and touch screen devices were still clunky stylus based UIQ phones and iPAQs. Yet surprisingly, the average Smartphone share of shipments that was forecast for 2010 was …about 30%. So even without the Apple & Google revolution fanning the flames, many analysts believed in the mass migration to Smartphones.

Reality check: by looking at the numbers for the first three quarters of 2009, it appears that last year there have shipped no more than 170-180 million devices considered to be Open OS Smartphones. Indeed Symbian, Windows, iPhone, Blackberry, Android, WebOS, LiMO and Maemo taken all together still only constitute about 15-17% of shipments. This percentage is in fact much lower than the 2009 Smartphone share predicted a few years ago by many research companies.

Why is this interesting?  It shows that hype can cause people to overlook the simple facts.  Despite the hype, Smartphone penetration seems to be following a gradual path which will eventually, in the long run, see Smartphones dominate shipments, revenues and installed base, but Smartphones are far from being an overnight revolution. In this light, mobile operators and software providers planning device platform strategies need to look at the opportunities going forward in a balanced, realistic way and not base it on hype.

Reports of death of the mid-range may have been a bit too early…
The analysis de-jour is that OEMs that relied on mid-range proprietary platforms and did not have a high-end Smartphone/Open OS offering suffered badly.  “Collapse of the mid range feature phone market” they claim.  Sony Ericsson and Motorola are given as the prime examples of that collapse, both having significantly lower shipments in 2008 and 2009 and both banking on Android to lift them back up. Yet the interesting data is that the two OEMs that gained the most market share at the expense of Sony Ericsson and Motorola and grew their revenues and profits in 2008-2009 were Samsung and LG, who together make up about 30% of the market– around 330M handsets shipped in 2009.

What’s both interesting and counter-intuitive is that these two Korean vendors achieved this phenomenal performance in the face of a recession with virtually no reliance on Smartphone platforms. A Telecoms Korea article estimated that in 2009 Samsung and LG have jointly shipped about 10 Million Open OS handsets, including their newly launched Android phones. That is only 10 million out of 330M (a paltry 3%!). It comes in stark contrast to the hyped picture that emerges from the Smartphone speak.  According to same article, 2010 will see almost tripling of Samsung and LG’s Smartphone shipments to about 25 million. Assuming Samsung and LG will maintain or increase their volumes in 2010, this growth, while impressive, is still very far from Smartphone domination. Unless Sony-Ericsson and Motorola achieve miracles with Android, the Google OS will not yet conquer the market in 2010. How can this seemingly counter-intuitive phenomenon be explained?

Touch Screen Phone Does NOT equal Smartphone
Despite the supposedly obvious linkage some seem to make between Smartphone /Open OS and touch screens, the reality is quite different. When Apple’s iPhone was introduced in 2007, rivals all rushed to come up with iPhone killers. The major benchmark set by the iPhone was not the Open OS and 3rd party applications – the App Store did not open until mid 2008. Rather it was the slickness of the UI, the finger based multi-touch, and the browsing experience.

LG and Samsung were the quickest OEMs to respond, and promptly chose implement the slick UIs and touch screens on their so called “proprietary” handset platforms, not on Open OS platforms such as Symbian or Windows Mobile. Starting with a big marketing campaign for the LG Prada, a myriad of curiously named models appeared in quick succession, like LG’s Arena, Renoir, Cookie, Viewty, Chocolate and Samsung’s Tocco, Pixon, Jet, Behold, Star, Corby and Solstice, among countless others. Both Samsung and LG invested heavily in cross-platform touch screen UI layers -TouchWiz and S-Class respectively.

A rough count of LG and Samsung’s currently shipping GSM/UMTS models shows over 70% of their touch screen phone models are not Smartphones. Samsung and LG have correctly identified the market demand for slick UI, touch screens and Web browsing, and have created the mass market affordable touch phone segment. Samsung’s Tocco is the prime example: a 5 Megapixel, HSDPA phone, which has sold over 9 million units. Samsung and LG’s relatively stable ASPs (Average Selling Price) which are significantly higher than Nokia’s, show that their product mix has not gravitated towards the ultra low cost markets but rather the share gains were as a result of great success of the “mass-market touch” strategy in developed markets such as Western Europe and the US.

Even at the high-end flagship model segment, both Korean OEMs heavily marketed the proprietary models over their very few Smartphones. The Samsung Jet S8000’s key marketing theme was “Smarter than a Smartphone”. Head-to-head comparisons show Jet outperforming competing Samsung offerings like the Windows based Omnia. Similarly LG’s BL40 New Chocolate is presented as its ultimate multimedia phone. With 800Mhz processors, capacitive touch screens and 5 to 12 megapixel cameras, hardware requirements pose no limitations for the proprietary flagships. LG and Samsung are clearly continuing to invest in the proprietary platforms and in cross-platform UI Frameworks, as Samsung’s integration of the Dolphin browser into its SHP (Samsung Handset Platform) shows.

Meanwhile, with the recently unveiled Bada platform (or UI layer) it’s become clear that Samsung is not out to create yet another Smartphone/ Open OS platform but rather enhance its proprietary SHP platform.  If Samsung and LG’s proprietary platforms continue to improve, generate sales and build market share, it is difficult to see them vanish anytime soon.

Are “dumb-phones” really becoming extinct?
Clearly some RTOS phone platforms have fallen by the wayside, and it is certain that over the long term, older Operating Systems are bound to be marginalized or end their lives. But those feature phone platforms that have currently survived will still have huge markets to be sold into in the next few years. The key contenders are the major OEM’s internal platforms:  Nokia’s Series 40, LG’s platform (called WISE) and Samsung SHP/Bada.

There is also one platform that is licensed to multiple OEMs: Qualcomm’s Brew Mobile Platform. Qualcomm’s Brew MP is quietly gaining ground in many markets that have growth potential, especially China’s new 3G markets (and India to follow). Moreover, traditional BREW supporting CDMA operators such as Verizon Wireless, KDDI and Sprint have committed to Brew Mobile Platform going forward.  HTC, traditionally associated with Windows and Android, has recently launched HTC Smart, a Brew MP based phone, to compete in the mass-market touch screen phone segment.  I believe Brew MP’s new positioning as an open, free and Qualcomm-unattached offering has increased its appeal even for GSM/UMTS operators to utilize Brew MP as a basis for operator own-branded mid-range platforms. AT&T’s recent announcement of a major commitment to use Brew MP for a range of mass market handsets is the latest proof of this development

Nokia Series 40 (and whatever is left of Series 30) still accounts for over 80% of Nokia’s shipment volumes- this amounts to at least 320 Million phones in 2009. It still covers a vast range, from ultra-low cost to mid-high end. While Nokia will no doubt increase the proportion of Symbian and Maemo over time, it is still investing in the Series 40 platform into 2010- even adding touch screen capability and if the market returns to growth in 2010, Series 40 shipments could even increase.

Redrawing the platform map based on customer ownership
I believe that the platform definition lines are now being redrawn, and will not follow the traditional Smartphone vs. RTOS dumb phone view. The clear definition of what constitutes a Smartphone is blurring fast.

First, the view of the Smartphone as a device uniquely capable of installing full-fledged native applications is challenged by the following paradox: that LiMo and WebOS are considered “Open OS” Smartphones even though they do not (yet or ever) allow native Linux applications to be deployed. At the same time, Brew Mobile Platform, which has a native SDK and allows native application installations, is considered a feature phone platform. The appearance of Bada will surely obscure this definition further.

Second, I have also shown that high specification hardware, multi-tasking and touch screens are also not the exclusive domain of Smartphones.  Third, the emergence of new cross-platform rich application environments such as Web runtime widgets, can enable Widget app stores on any supporting device, Smart or “dumb”.

I believe the picture that emerges is a platforms landscape mapped by control of the end-to-end proposition. This map is bounded at its edges by two types of propositions (not including the low-end):

Type 1:  the vertically integrated, high-end consumer branded device-and-service platforms of the Apple/Google/RIM /Palm type, where the platform owner or OEM is in control of UX and services (with App Stores and software updates at the epicenter). The operator can aspire to serve as a “smart-pipe” at best, as most services are delivered and managed by the platform and brand owner.

Type 2:  a mid-range proposition involving platforms which are white labeled by design like LiMo, Brew MP and OMS (a customized version of Android). These are platforms that cater to tier-1 operators, where they can define and manage customized UX and services, including Web, multimedia content, data sync, device and software management.  This is classically typified by INQ and Three’s BREW based phones, Vodafone’s LiMo-based 360, and AT&T’s plans outlined earlier. The emphasis here is on services, where consumer access to an application store (for widgets, Java or native apps) is a service but is not as critical to the overall proposition.

In between these two there are hybrids, notably tier-1 OEMs like Nokia and Samsung, who are attempting to build their own end-to-end service propositions with their device platforms (Symbian & Maemo for Nokia, Bada for Samsung) while still collaborating with their traditional operator customers on co-branded services and customized device propositions. Google’s Android partnership with key operators such T-Mobile also falls into this hybrid category.

The bets are spreading
As of late 2009, the only companies who are shipping true Open OS Smartphones in mass volumes are Nokia (Symbian), RIM (Blackberry), Apple (iPhone) and HTC (Windows Mobile, now Android). This will no doubt start to change over the course of time as Android shipments start to ramp up and the rest of the platforms realize their growth potential, but it is still not an overnight revolution.

Looking forward, this thesis shows that the market will be much more diverse than the simplistic notion that everyone either wants an App Store capable iPhone or Droid, or alternatively, an ultra-low cost phone to make phone calls. There is many more commercial dynamics at play, making up a complex platform map which is driven by customer ownership.

In 2009 the number of available device software platforms effectively grew, creating more fragmentation in the industry, not less. There are clearly mid-range segments and geographical markets with varying needs, which can be addressed with various software platforms, not necessarily in the traditional view of Smartphones vs. RTOS “dumb phones”. Simply betting on one or two platforms to rule the industry is not a sensible plan.

– Guy

[Guy Agin has been working in the mobile industry since the days of the Palm Pilot. He has product managed diverse mobile solutions for many companies in the mobile industry. He is currently heading strategy and strategic business development activities at Red Bend Software. He can be reached at guy [dot] agin /a/t]

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