Rethinking Conventional Wisdom Around Hardware ASPs

on August 6, 2018
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Apple’s recent earnings call, where the company revealed its iPhone average selling price (ASP) for the second quarter grew to $724, stunned many industry watchers. And while it’s true that no other smartphone vendor is selling phones at near that price in the same volumes as Apple, the reality is that four of the top five smartphone vendors worldwide have seen their ASPs increase over the course of the last year. In addition, that top five is also consolidating share, reflecting the maturity of the market.

Samsung is the Exception
Looking at 2016 and 2017 smartphone data from IDC’s Mobile Phone Tracker, four of the top five vendors in 2017 have seen their ASPs increase. This includes Apple, Huawei, OPPO, and Xiaomi. Only Samsung’s ASPs declined during this period and based on the company’s most recent earnings call this trend seems to be continuing. As noted, nobody among this group is operating at the same level as Apple, but it’s very interesting to see the Chinese vendors successfully shifting their mix toward higher selling prices. For example, Huawei saw its ASP increase from $231 in 2016 to $255 in 2017. Both OPPO and Xiaomi increased ASPs, as well, although both started at lower price points. Meanwhile, Samsung’s dropped from $319 to $318, down from $344 in 2015. (Why Samsung’s ASPs are trending down is a subject for another column but suffice to say it’s a wide range of reasons, from marketing to product mix to stiff competition.)

We only have one-quarter of data for 2018, so it’s unclear whether these trends will continue in 2018, but the fact that many of these vendors are seeing their ASPs increase over time does fly in the face of conventional wisdom around the presumed eventuality of hardware commoditization. The other thing that’s important to note is during this same time the percentage of share the top five owned, relative to the rest of the market, increased from 56% in 2016 to 60% in 2017. In other words, the top five is gobbling up more of the market, and it’s doing so at higher ASPs year over year. A quick look at the next five vendors down (numbers 5-10) show that about half of this group has also managed to grow its ASPs in the last year, too. In fact, if we look at the entire category, the average selling price of a smartphone increased by about $30 between 2016 and 2017. And the trend looks to be continuing in 2018.

It’s also important to note the fact that in addition to its sky-high ASPs, Apple continues to grow the adjacent businesses that help increase lock-in the iPhone. This includes it wearables products—including Apple Watch, AirPods, and Beats—as well as services, including Apple Music, iCloud, Apple Pay, and more. These accessories and services make the high-priced iPhones even stickier, helping to ensure a high percentage of current buyers return when its time for a new phone. Others in the top five have attempted similar strategies, with varying degrees of success. Perhaps the most interesting in this regard is Xiaomi, which offers a wide range of products and services. The company says it has an installed base of about 190 million active users, with as small but growing group that owns multiple products from the company.

Desktop and Notebook ASPs
Smartphones aren’t the only major hardware category that is defying the drumbeat of conventional thought around commoditization. When I look at IDC’s Personal Computing Devices Tracker, I see that ASPs for both notebooks and desktops are also growing among the top five vendors. Across the board, HP Inc, Lenovo, Dell, Apple, and ASUS all saw their ASPs for notebooks increase from 2016 to 2017. The top five’s share of the market stayed about the same at 80% (up from 77% in 2015). Across the market, the increase from 2016 to 2017 was about $47. Desktops also saw ASPs increase from 2016 to 2017, with Lenovo, HP Inc, Dell, Acer, and Apple all seeing positive shifts. Here the top five grew its share to 61% in 2017, up from 59% in 2016 and 57% in 2015. Category-wide, the ASP increase was about $32. The still-small detachable category also grew its worldwide ASP during this period, by $16.

Only the slate tablet category has bucked this increasing ASP trend. This market, which as struggled overall, continues to see ASPs declining. This is true even for Apple, and I believe it reflects the unsettled nature of this market overall.
Time to Reconsider Conventional Wisdom?

So, except for slate tablets, all these hardware categories seem to be defying conventional wisdom about hardware commoditization. And that’s before you factor in the all the dollars associated with accessories and services, an area where Apple has clearly succeeded with consumers, and where other players—such as HP Inc, Lenovo, and Dell, and are finding increasing success with commercial buyers. (I’d suggest that Device as Service will play an increasingly important role here going forward.)

So here I’ll echo the sentiment of one of my fellow columnists in suggesting that perhaps it is time to reconsider the conventional wisdom around device markets. Clearly, consumers and commercial users know what they want and need, and many are willing and able to pay a bit more than they have in the past for the devices that they use every day. Quality design, new features, and integrated services matter. So perhaps it is time the world stops assuming every hardware category must eventually end in a highly commoditized state where ASPs are in perpetual decline.