An Act of Folly: Smartphones in Five Years

on April 25, 2012

BlackBerry Curve 8300
2007's hot smartphone

Let’s take a quick trip in our time machine to survey the smartphone market in the spring of 2007, five years ago. The iPhone had been announced but not yet shipped, and many were skeptical about its success. Android was still mostly a gleam in Andy Rubin’s eye. The hot smartphones of the day included the consumer-oriented BlackBerry Curve and the Windows Mobile-based Samsung BlackJack. The general expectation of forecasters was that Symbian’s dominant market share would shrink, but stay strong, Windows Phone would at least hold its own, while BlackBerry surged and Palm shriveled.

Fast forward to the present. Smartphone unit sales have nearly quadrupled, but the market has become jumbled in ways that few expected. Apple sells nearly one in five of all smartphones, but is the standard against all else is judged. Symbian is disappearing and BlackBerry is hanging on for dear life, especially in developed markets. Android has gone from nothing to a nearly 40% share, while Microsoft, having replaced Windows Mobile with the snazzier Windows Phone continues to bleed market share.

Smartphone Market Share

Operating system 2007 2011
Symbian 63.5 19.2
BlackBerry 9.6 13.4
Microsoft Windows Mobile/ Windows Phone 12.0 10.8
Apple iOS 2.7 18.9
Linux 9.6
PalmOS 1.4
Android 38.5
Other 1.1 3.4
Data: Gartner

Given this background, talking about what the smartphone market might look like in 2017 seems like a fool’s errand, but I’m going to take my chances. To some extent, smartphones are beginning to look like a mature market, at least in North America, Europe, and Japan. One characteristic of mature markets is consolidation of producers. And in the case of smartphones, this trend is complicated by the delicate interplay of handset makers and operating system providers.

The hot issue of the moment is the pressure toward combining hardware and software into vertically integrated producers. This thinking has been inspired by the staggering success of Apple, though it requires overlooking the struggles of vertically integrated Research In Motion and the implosion of Hewlett-Packard/webOS.

Ingtegration and consolidation. The industry seems well on its way to more integration and more consolidation. My colleague Tim Bajarin thinks that despite its demurrals, Google will make an integrated Motorola the prime producer of Android products. There’s a lot of reason to believe that if Microsoft doesn’t buy Nokia outright, it will formalize an arrangement in which Nokia becomes its official premier Windows Phone partner. I think both Nokia and Motorola will end up as the official flagships of their operating systems.

Apple should be able to fly above this storm. As demonstrated by its latest blowout quarter, there is every sign that it will be able to hold on to the high end of the business for some years to come. The iPhone has lost some market share, and this trend will continue because much of the growth over the next few years will come as low-end smartphones displace feature phones in markets and geographies that are not Apple’s métier. But Apple doesn’t much care about market share; it will dominate the much more important categories of mind share and profit share.

The company most threatened by MicroNokia and MotoGoogle is Samsung, which has just displaced Nokia as the leading phone maker by worldwide unit volume. Samsung is highly integrated on the hardware side. It makes its own processors, displays, and flash memory, among other components. But it has never been a leader in software. It has its own operating system, but Badu has gotten little traction and for its high-end phones, Samsung depends on Android and Windows Phone. Samsung is not going to be happy as a second-class manufacturer for either Microsoft or Google.

Samsung’s tough choices. Samsung’s options, however, are limited. It could buy RIM, which seems destined to fade away unless it can team up with someone. But given RIM’s struggles trying to bring a new BlackBerry operating system to market, this might not offer Samsung much of a solution. A more promising course might be for Samsung to claim an open-source operating system as its own. It’s partnering with Intel on a mobile OS called Tizen, but this seems headed for the same ash heap as Intel’s other OS efforts. (Meego, anyone?)

webOS offers a more intriguing possibility. HP owns it, but has open-sourced the code and made it freely available. It’s a sophisticated modern OS that needs work, but one that Samsung might be able to use as its own platform for phones and tablets. Another possibility would be simply to grab Android and definitively strike out with its own fork without regard to Google’s development path. Either course would require Samsung to get deeply into software development, developer relations, and everything else that goes along with being a full-service provider. This has not been a Samsung strength, but the alternatives may be far worse.

One way or another, I expect Samsung to be a significant player in the 2017 phone market. I’m much less sure about the smaller Android and Windows Phone manufacturers. HTC, with a foot in each camp, has stumbled of late and could have difficulty getting its mojo back. I would not be at all surprised to see Sony, which recently became the sole owner of what had been Sony Ericsson, exit the phone business after struggling, successively, with Symbian, Windows Mobile, and Android. LG, which has never quite gotten the hang of smartphones, could also leave the market. ZTE, Huawei, and Lenovo can trade on their strength in the Chinese market, but may make little impact elsewhere.

The market in 2017. In unit volumes, the 2017 smartphone market will be dominated by low-end phones sold in emerging markets. If Nokia can survive the stormy present, either in partnership with Microsoft or as part of it, the combination of Nokia’s strength in these markets and Windows Phone’s ability to perform well on modest hardware , could again make it a formidable player. Android may be a big force in two flavors, the official one and a Samsung variant. Many of the smaller phone makers will be out of the market. RIM will hang on in some form, perhaps as a supplier of back-end enterprise services and specialized secure phones. And Apple will be Apple.

The biggest question mark is MotoGoogle. Left as it is, it seems doomed to become a second-tier Android handset maker, some thing of little use to Google. Integrated and turned into an Android flagship, it puts Google head to head with Apple and possibly Microsoft. It would probably forsake the current Android licensing model, which is not working very well anyway, and would have to develop new talents such as supply chain manage, channel strategy, and carrier relations. Google has the money and the brains to do all this, but I’m not sure it has the desire, patience, and discipline to pull it off.