Samsung’s Challenges Reveal Need for Greater Vendor Diversity

Much has been written about how a debacle like the Note7 happened and what Samsung might do to repair its reputation. Samsung’s challenges also shed light on a unique fact about the U.S. smartphone market: the high degree of vendor concentration. Industry research houses show Apple and Samsung represent nearly 75% of smartphone share in the US (Apple about 45%, Samsung 29%) and about 90% of the profits. The remaining share is spread among several vendors, with LG at nearly 10% and Motorola at about half that. Concentration has been creeping up in recent years. Four years ago, the combined Apple/Samsung share was just under 60%.

The picture is quite different in other parts of the world. Globally, as of Q2 2016, Samsung was the leading vendor at 23%, Apple had a 12% share, Huawei had 10%, and all others had 55% combined, according to IDC. The vendor share picture varies quite dramatically by region and even by country. Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE have made significant progress in Europe, having captured some 25%+ share between them in certain countries. China, the world’s largest handset market, is a veritable vendor free-for-all. Nowhere is the market as concentrated as in the US.

Why is this the case? Well, one factor is our iOS-centricity: Apple’s share in North America is some 2x that of just about anywhere else. We also like our flagship devices. Average selling prices here are among the highest in the world, and US consumers show a particular penchant for the ‘latest, greatest’ iPhone or Galaxy. Another factor is the strong role the carriers play in the US market. Many of their pricing promotions and ad campaigns are centered around iconic iPhone and Galaxy launches.

This fall’s handset developments have revealed why this might be a problem. First, Apple introduced the iPhone 7 which, although a terrific device, received mixed reviews. I am sensing a bit of Apple ennui, particularly among younger users. Sales have been pretty good but replacement cycles are creeping up. Then there’s the Note7 debacle. It is hard at this point to gauge the long-term damage to Samsung’s reputation and whether it will significantly affect the company’s market share. But this has been both difficult and costly for Samsung’s major customers in the US, the wireless carriers, who play an outsized role in distribution compared to operators in other countries. We learned last week that Samsung is offering $100 vouchers to consumers, among other measures, but little has been said about what Samsung is doing to repair its reputation with the operators.

I believe US operators and consumers are left vulnerable by this concentrated market. First, Apple has never been all that operator-friendly — in fact, it continues to do things in the crosshairs of the operators, such as last year’s move into equipment financing. Second, what if the next iPhone is a dud or gets delayed by a few months? Operators have become pretty addicted to that clockwork September iPhone launch to meet their 4Q numbers. What if Samsung’s supply chain and QA problems are more far-reaching? What are the fallback options?

The challenge other handset OEMs have had in capturing share in this market over the past several years is a bit baffling. LG, Motorola, and HTC, among others, make excellent devices. In segments of the market where price is more of a factor, such as prepaid and MVNOs, their combined share is proportionately higher. But they can’t compete with the gargantuan ad budgets of Apple and Samsung and the carriers just haven’t given them all that much love.

I’m surprised the operators haven’t pushed harder. Why are they leaving themselves so vulnerable to an Apple or Samsung hiccup? Why haven’t they put more pressure on pricing? Why aren’t they exerting more influence on the phone’s user experience? With a leveling off of smartphone growth and longer replacement cycles, I am a bit surprised at operators’ order-takery mentality on devices.

Perhaps this is why Google is taking a renewed and more vigorous crack at the handset business with the recently announced Pixel phones. It realizes the market is increasingly tilting toward ecosystems and software—areas where it can exert an influence as long as the hardware is good (which seems to be the ante needed to play in developed country markets). Consumers buy iPhones, in large part, because of the Apple ecosystem. There is no single torchbearer for the Android ecosystem or even a device that maximizes Android’s potential to deliver a fantastic user experience. So, Google is thinking that embedding Google Assistant into the Pixel, plus the ability for Pixel to integrate with other announced Google hardware, such as Home, Hub and even the fledgling Project Fi service, could be part of a next-generation ecosystem play.

Why would vendor diversity be good? As protection in case of an Apple or Samsung hiccup (or worse); a hedge against said vendors’ occasional arrogance; a lever on inflated prices; and as a spur for innovation. This would also give the operators more skin in the game—a position they had not so many years ago.

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Mark Lowenstein

Mark Lowenstein is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem, an advisory services firm focused on mobile and digital media. He founded and led the Yankee Group's global wireless practices and was also VP, Market Strategy at Verizon Wireless. You can follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein and sign up for his free Lens on Wireless newsletter here.

8 thoughts on “Samsung’s Challenges Reveal Need for Greater Vendor Diversity”

  1. I’m not sure what you’re saying: even in the US, there *is* vendor diversity, consumers can easily buy flagships from LG, Huawei, HTC, Moto, now Google… those are mostly interchangeable. Only Sony exited the US market I think ? gNote buyers have plenty of alternative choices (except if they need a pen, in which case their only choice is -gasp !- last year’s model).

    What’s missing is buyers diversity….but consumers are paying over the odds for a fake subsidy, so they flock to the most expensive, most trendy, most flashy device… and why not, it’s “free” (read: they get billed $1k+ for it anyway). That pretty much kills the usual economics of purchase decision-making and replaces it with “I’ll get the best of the best of the best, I’m sure it’ll be better for my Candy Crush marathons, plus it’s the one to have this year”.

    Subsidies plus incompatible networks give carriers a large influence on what devices get sold in the US. That should indeed probably go.

  2. “Why would vendor diversity be good?”
    Clearly a rhetorical question. Isn’t this why we have anti-trust laws?
    But I’ll add… Not only diversity, but interoperability.
    Case in point, incompatible networks should have never been allowed by the FCC. Ever! It did not serve the public interest.

  3. I am confused by this article. You seem to be saying that operators are very strong in the US (“Another factor is the strong role the carriers play in the US market”), yet you are also saying that the operators are vulnerable (“I believe US operators and consumers are left vulnerable by this concentrated market”).

    Are you saying that operators are strong, or are you saying that they are weak? Are you saying that the powerful operators are willingly making themselves vulnerable?

    1. Thanks for the comments. Operators play an outsize role in the U.S. in terms of distribution — meaning customers buy their phones through the operators. But the relative concentration of the market exposes some vulnerability on price, quality, innovation, and to their business if Samsung or Apple have a hiccup. Handset sales are a big driver of net adds and plan changes/upgrades in a relatively mature market.

  4. I haven’t seen the stats on OS loyalty but I suspect it is pretty high in the US. Any attempt to raise vendor diversity through promotions would probably just succeed on the Android side of the OS divide.

  5. I would say Google Project Fi presents a major solution for carrier diversity. They use three carriers in the US (Sprint, T-Mobile and US cellular) and the phone selects between a better signal (according to their website) plus free international roaming. I even contemplated buying one of Google phones and using it in Canada before discovering they only have 2g coverage hère. I like Nexus brand ans don’t understand why they did not keep it for Pixel (or name it Phone Fi). After reading Pixel review ( I tested GoogleAss, strike through, GooglIn? on my and got the same results on my iPhone as the reviewer on Pixel for thé context sensitive series of questions (after appropriately using my home province of British Columbia instead of Maryland), so GoogleAss in ubiquitous (They should rename the Google AI. Really.)

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