Part 1: Executive summary
The future of the handset is easy enough to predict: it’s going nowhere. This statement could – and needs to – be read in two ways.
On the one hand, it can mean the smartphone market is a dying industry, or at least one evolving in such a way that it is fast becoming unrecognisable from what it once was.
On the other hand, it can mean this is a vibrant, engaging and dynamic market that’s here to stay, even if its ultimate destination – or ‘form factor’  – remains uncertain.
So which statement is true? Arguably both.
There’s no doubt the mobile phone – whatever it ultimately does and however it ultimately operates – persists as a cornerstone of communication and interaction, for the foreseeable future. After all:
- Google announced last year that “more searches take place on mobile devices than on computers in 10 countries including the US and Japan”. To cater to this trend, the search giant rolled out what was colloquially coined as ‘mobilegeddon’, a major algorithm change in 2015 favouring websites optimised for mobile devices.
- The mobile wallet, whether Apple, Samsung or Android Pay, is already here. The full transition to frictionless, digital payment will not happen this year or next, but the credit card – and indeed hard cash – could soon be hanging on by its fingernails.
- Facebook, in its Q3 results last year, revealed that mobile advertising revenue represented approximately 78% of advertising revenue for the third quarter of 2015, up from 66% in the third quarter of 2014. Mobile, very clearly, is where it’s at.
- Internet speeds are getting ever faster on mobile devices. Reflecting this, the EU has announced that it wants to clear the spectrum for 5G services to be up and running by 2020. On-the-go mobile speeds are catching up with fixed line broadband.
- According to the Yahoo-owned mobile analytics company Flurry, “the average US consumer is spending 198 minutes per day inside apps compared to 168 minutes on TV”. The app is at the beginning of its growth curve, while TV-centric living, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau, is steadily declining as people switch to other connected devices, including mobiles.
Equally, there’s no doubt the handset market is in a state of extreme flux. For example, the IDC has claimed that 2015 was the smartphone industry’s lowest growth year, with single-digit growth for the first time ever of just under 10%. In 2014, by contrast, growth came in at 40%
The recent batch of corporate results from major handset manufacturers serves to underline the malaise, with those other than Apple and Samsung – global leaders in profit and market share respectively – finding the smartphone sector an incredibly challenging space to compete within.
So what exactly is happening? The slowing growth in global handset sales can certainly be attributed to a number of factors.
Not only does the smartphone market appear to be at saturation point in many parts of the West, but customers have the lure of emerging technologies such as wearables and virtual reality – introduced by manufacturers to eke out margin growth as much as illicit innovation. The halo around the smartphone (at least in isolation) no longer shines as brightly.
There’s also the matter of today’s consumers being far more savvy. A pronounced shift to SIM-only deals in the last two years and the changing nature of the contract — something we have witnessed at uSwitch first hand — underlines this growing sophistication and demand for flexibility over rigid tariffs.
A consumer survey by uSwitch.com revealed that only 57% of mobile users had considered an upgrade to a newer model in the past year. Given the number of flagship, mid-range and entry-level device launches within a 12-month period, this is obviously a massive concern for those in mobile. Why are they not as enticing to consumers as they once were?
As many makers struggle to tempt users to upgrade with new handset launches, appetite for SIM-only deals – which provide calls, texts and data without a handset – as well as consumers sticking with their current devices, is rising.
This diminishing interest in the smartphone market at large – or ‘handset fatigue’ – is fast becoming a pox on the industry.
Disruptive competition from Chinese manufacturers, such as Xiaomi, Huawei and ZTE, is adding to the market uncertainty for a number of the traditional runners.
This new breed of low-cost, high-spec smartphone that mobile users can comfortably purchase outright is only enabling the SIM-only market to flourish.
Moreover, the handset has become the gateway into the grand ecosystems of our time, currently dominated by the meta-brands of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft, but also into the infinite promise of wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT).
For the time being, the balance of power appears to have shifted from the manufacturers of hardware to the facilitators and service providers.
Part 2: A market in disarray
To say it is not a pretty picture for the handset market at present is an understatement.
uSwitch.com sales of mobile contracts that incorporate a handset constituted 81.2% of sales in 2013, but this plummeted to 58.1% in 2015 – at a time when SIM-only sales more than doubled (from 18.8% in 2013 to 41.9% in 2015 – see graph in part three).
Already in 2016:
- A February report from Gartner has revealed that worldwide smartphone sales in the last quarter of 2015 saw their slowest growth since 2008.
- Apple has announced that iPhone sales have started to flat-line and are now growing at their slowest rate since the game-changing handset launched in 2007. Its launch of the iPhone SE is set to boost flagging sales by targeting Generation Z with a phone consciously pitched at the mid-range sector, and regain investor confidence.
- Samsung has reported a 40% fall in profits for Q4 2015 due to slowing smartphone sales. After the relatively lukewarm reception of the Galaxy S6 and unexpected popularity of its Edge variant causing supply woes, Samsung will be eager for the S7 — and specifically S7 Edge — to build on the success of the latter.
- Microsoft announced that phone revenue declined 49% in the last quarter of 2015, reflecting its strategy change announced in July last year. Such is its uncertainty, the computing giant didn’t announce any new handsets at MWC 2016. Has it given up on mobile hardware? Joe Belfiore’s well-publicised sabbatical might indicate a real change in direction.
- LG has revealed flat-lining year-on-year smartphone sales, shipping just under 60m units in 2015 relative to 59m in 2014. Just as Samsung is banking on its S7, so LG is hoping its G5 will turn around fortunes.
- Taiwanese manufacturer HTC, previously one of Android’s best-selling handset manufacturers, has announced a $101m net loss for Q4 2015. There’s plenty riding on the success of the HTC M10. Securing the 2016 Nexus would also do the manufacturer no harm.
- Sony’s mobile division revealed a 14.7% year-on-year sales drop in its Q3 results published at the end of January. Like so many others, it is struggling to compete with Apple and Samsung at the high-end, and with Chinese manufacturers at the low and mid-end.
With so many established brands facing uncertainty, the handset industry is at a major inflection point.
Part 3: The causes of discontent
So what’s happening? Why the uncertainty, the deterioration in handset sales, and the general lack of direction among manufacturers? The handset market is in the path of a perfect storm, a storm whipped up by:
Mobile customers are savvier, and more patient, than ever. These battle-hardened users know a gimmick from a genuine reason to upgrade.
In a consumer survey by uSwitch.com, 75% said eyeball-tracking technology would make no difference to their purchasing decision, while 69% said they wouldn’t be lured by a phone with a voice control function. Another 62% said that 3D graphics wouldn’t make them any more likely to upgrade.
An ‘s year’ – typified in the iPhone 6s – is increasingly read as ‘steer clear’. Consumers expect a two-year manufacturer cycle of an iterative device followed by a technological step forward. The two-year cycle persists because, for those consumers tied into 24-month contracts, only every other launch of a handset is of note, despite networks, retailers and even handset makers themselves attempting to force shorter cycles through upgrade or early renewal programmes.
If people do upgrade – and their handset hasn’t been stolen, lost or broken – they wait for a defining change in either the hardware or the OS. For manufacturers, more fundamental shifts are needed to break the handset ‘holding pattern’ of disengagement until a new phone or feature piques interest.
Equally, consumers understand, from experience, that the latest cutting-edge technology on one handset will rapidly trickle down to lower-cost counterparts. For buyers, patience pays, whilst for sellers it hurts.
Just as people have become wiser to gimmicks and overly commercial tactics – note the fate of the now-extinct Amazon Fire Phone – they are also now acutely aware of the relative value represented by handset contracts.
The number of people prepared to enter into a 24-month handset and airtime contract is shrinking by the day.
Instead, as the graph below highlights, SIM-only contracts are a major growth area for uSwitch.com, approaching just under 42% of the market in 2015.
SIM-only puts the customer in control, not the service provider and/or handset manufacturer, and gives people the flexibility and freedom to switch effortlessly between devices at their own pace.
Graph: The Steady Consumer Shift to SIM-only
Source: uSwitch.com sales data
According to a Kantar report in February 2016, mobile penetration in the US and Europe‘s Big Five Countries (EU5) has reached 91%. Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, said: “With this kind of market penetration already in place, some in the industry are wondering where future sales will come from.”
Not only is mobile ownership higher than ever before, the market as a whole is awash with hand-me-downs and refurbs. It’s not unusual for people to have a number of old – but perfectly working – handsets gathering dust in drawers or under their beds. And they are being passed from parents to children and friends to friends.
Neither does it help that handsets are also now far easier to repair. In fact, an entire industry has emerged around specialist mobile insurance and fast handset repairs in the UK, from iMend and iSmash to Geek Squad and more traditional players like Timpson. The result? As the corporate crisis highlighted above shows, less demand.
Function (and resilience) over form
More than anything, consumers, quite understandably, want phones that make calls wherever you happen to live, have long battery life, are waterproof and have screens that don’t shatter into a million pieces the moment you drop them.
A uSwitch.com consumer survey revealed that the top three most important features to British mobile users were how easy their handsets were to use (28%), call reception (21%) and battery life (21%)8. Bottom of the list was a curved display (4%) – although the success of the Galaxy S6 Edge has proved otherwise.
Reflecting this new-born pragmatism, Motorola’s shatterproof screen won an innovation award at the 2016 uSwitch.com Mobile Awards. It begs the question: how has it taken this long for a handset manufacturer to incorporate this into a phone?
To an extent, simple improvements to the basics of mobile design and resistance are proving to be more attractive than the next big thing in mobile manufacture. Ruggedised phones have never been more in demand.
FACT: In a recent uSwitch survey, robust, anti-shatter screens were top of the most-useful list for consumers, with 70% of smartphone owners agreeing they add value; meanwhile, 57% of owners also rated waterproof handsets.
Ecosystem entry point
Our relationship with the handset has changed irreversibly in recent years: it has become the entry point rather than the end point.
The balance of power has shifted from hardware to software, or more specifically to the social media, app – and IoT – based ecosystems that handsets enable us to tap into.
Consumers are less concerned by the physical handset than its ability to grant us access. Again, why upgrade if the handset you already have enables you to go where you want to go and do what you want to do?
Handset manufacturers are being distracted by (or rather looking for the next major market growth opportunity in) new technology and hardware trends, from foldable handsets to smartwatches and countless other wearables.
Nothing better exemplifies this sea change than HTC Vive and the Taiwanese company’s move into virtual reality (VR). In the words of Cher Wang, CEO of HTC:
“Yes, smartphones are important, but to create a natural extension to other connected devices like wearables and virtual reality is more important.”
And while VR is untested and uncertain, even Facebook and Sony are piling in. Samsung, of course, with the help of Oculus, is already there with its Gear VR, while Google is apparently developing a new VR headset for its smartphones and will soon update Android accordingly.
CCS Insight forecasts that augmented and virtual reality devices will become a $4 billion+ business within three years. But is getting behind VR backing the right horse? Is the future virtual? And, just as importantly, can the next step in tech, whatever it is, be monetised? Smartphone manufacturers are less at a crossroads than a spaghetti junction – but one rife with innovation, experimentation and (provided the barrier to basic access remains low) adoption.
Part 4: Who’s bucking the trend?
It’s not all bad news. Amid the mobile handset maelstrom, a new breed of Chinese manufacturers in particular is managing to be heard:
- Huawei is showing continued strong handset sales growth, with the Nexus 6P Google hook-up in late 2015 a major success, beating the Motorola-built Nexus 6 hands down. In the second quarter of 2015, Huawei became the world’s third largest mobile phone brand for the first time ever
- Xiaomi is also experiencing rapid growth in its handset sales, and is already the manufacturer with the largest market share in China. Producing phones that more than deliver on high-end features and looks for a fraction of the price, and often selling them online-only in order to control costs, Xiaomi is the young pretender. Apple’s iPhone SE can equally be seen as an admission that it needs to better accommodate the far savvier – not to mention pragmatic and cost-aware – Generation Z, as well a more direct shot at the lucrative mid-range heartland.
- OnePlus is also showing strong growth and taking an altogether fresh approach to marketing its handsets. With cultivated exclusivity via a novel ‘invite only’ distribution method and a concerted effort to court early adopters, this was another player that proved disruptive in the mid-range space.
But it’s not all doom and gloom among the more established manufacturers either. While iPhone sales have started to flat-line, Apple is still Apple and, as the graph below highlights, it continues to dominate uSwitch.com sales hands down with a 70% share.
Graph: Apple & Samsung Continue to Dwarf the Market
Source: uSwitch.com sales data
It would be a brave individual to bet against the expected launch of the inevitable iPhone sequel later in 2016, not to mention, more imminently, the mid-range challenger in the form of the iPhone SE, giving a major shot in the arm to its sales and refreshing the range.
The dual disruptors of surprise, and the ability to disconcert the status quo are ingrained in Apple’s DNA.
Likewise, even though Samsung is concerned that its own smartphone sales are slowing, the Galaxy S6 remains one of the best high quality phones on the market and the Edge proved that the right gimmick can court consumer interest significantly.
Early indications of the success of the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge prove that the frontrunners may be down a little, but are far from being out. Both are iterative devices which improve previous shortcomings in battery life, expandable memory and water resistance with laser-accuracy.
If there’s one major question mark hanging over Apple, it’s whether the company has left it too late to create the bond with Generation Z that it has had with millennials and beyond. The iPhone SE is a clear attempt to appeal to a younger, more cost-conscious demographic but do their loyalties already lie elsewhere? Or, to put it another way, has Apple cashed in on the present at the expense of the future?
Apple’s previous attempt at a lower cost phone was the iPhone 5c, now discontinued, which launched in 2013 alongside the higher-end 5s. Despite the fact there was, at launch, a mere £80 between the two phones, Tim Cook was nevertheless still surprised that demand for the iPhone 5s far outshone the 5c.
To its credit, once the 5c dropped in price, it stood the test of time – it was 6th in uSwitch’s top 10 bestselling handsets of 2015 – proving there is a market for a budget iPhone, if priced right.
The graph below shows how well the iPhone 6s sold at different tariffs, based on pay-monthly deals with varying data allowances, that affect pricing. The bestselling iPhone 6s deals came with 1GB of data, at £28.99 per month, with the other sweet spots for sales being at £34-£35.99 with 3GB of data and £36-£37.99 with 5GB of data.
uSwitch.com sales data shows the iPhone 5c really started flying off the shelves when deals hit £22-£23.99 with 2GB data. Launching the iPhone SE in March 2016 at a pay monthly price point of £6-£8 lower than current 6s tariffs should prove far more attractive to millennials and Generation Z from the off, and ensure it hits the ground running rather than having to be eroded to a take-off price.
Graph: The Sweet Spots for iPhone Sales
Source: uSwitch.com sales data
Part 5: Conclusion
The smartphone is here to stay. How it will continue to evolve and be shaped by other technologies is up for debate, but staving off this ‘handset fatigue’ in consumers is key, with either fresh devices or an ecosystem of exciting accessories that interact with it becoming essential to compete.
Although a new-to-market mobile can still excite, its success will increasingly be defined by the social constructs, technological advancements and app-driven ecosystems that it enables its owner to tap into, as well as delivering in its own right as a piece of hardware.
The smartphone is fast morphing into a tool connected to countless others which entertain, educate and enable, such as social relationships, practical tasks and data-led intelligence via the ever-looming Internet of Things era.
The handset manufacturers with the brightest futures are the ones that can tune into this step-change in the market, while not forgetting the base requirements of a robust form factor, which can be both aesthetically novel and yet deliver core functionality.
The best way to survive is to action both the following tactics. One in isolation isn’t enough:
- Deliver high-spec, low-value devices that speak to Generation Z, as demonstrated by the new-breed challenger brands of Huawei, Xiaomi and OnePlus. There is a good reason Apple has a renewed focus on affordable devices in the SE, following the eventual success of its 5c when it percolated into the mid-range tariff bracket.
- Diversify outside mobile devices, creating ecosystems that support everything from mobile payments to entertainment to virtual and augmented reality.
What’s the benefit to the manufacturer, you might well ask? In short, a captive audience to lock into their multiple services and revenue streams.
What we have for now are challenger brands focusing on hardware, and slower players still fixated on devices connected to proprietary platforms that refuse to allow for consumer flexibility.
It’s no longer just about the price per unit, it’s also considering how you attract and captivate a customer in the long term – even for life.
This trend is already evident among the manufacturer and OS creators, as highlighted by Windows Bridge, Apple Music being available on Android, and Microsoft embedding Cortana into Cyanogen – all efforts to enable more freedom and flexibility for customers to engage with their services, irrespective of device.
In the future, handset hubris and hermetically-sealed ecosystems – as Blackberry discovered at great cost by not making BBM available across other platforms – will spell trouble for even the biggest brands.
Part 6: The uSwitch verdict
What are mobile makers doing right and where are they slipping up?
GOOD – Samsung makes stunning-looking flagship handsets with impressive specs, and backs them up with big money advertising campaigns to ensure visibility. It’s currently the undisputed iPhone alternative.
IMPROVE – It needs to focus its efforts on cultivating niches within the smartphone arena. It already owns the phablet space with its Note 5 and overlooking this device in the UK to launch its S6 Edge Plus was seen by many as a misstep, one addressed with the S7 Edge unifying size and aesthetics in a single device.
TIP – Cater to performance trends in niche sectors to manicure a captive audience, as loyalty is a challenge even for a brand as resonant as Samsung. Continue to serve the low-end of the market with low-margin volume drivers and use the revenues generated to fund flagship competition.
GOOD – Apple has unassailable brand positioning, a market-leading advertising strategy and strong hardware to back it up.
IMPROVE – A decline in handset performance suggests the giant is losing its stride and later iPhone iterations aren’t tempting enough people to upgrade (or it’s a victim of wider market upheaval). It’s also said to be suffering a software-side lag from an aesthetic and functionality standpoint (iOS updates, Apple Music, iTunes).
TIP – Core revisions to both hardware and software in the iPhone’s next iteration should reignite interest and induce upgrades. A stronger effort in wearables and service improvements – to Apple Pay, iCloud and HomeKit – would spur early adopter interest in IoT functionality to diversify and enrich the Apple ecosystem.
GOOD – Microsoft has offered critically lauded hardware, and benefits from positive word of mouth and unification strategy on Windows Phone 10 OS.
IMPROVE – It suffers from a lack of clear device differentiation in both specs and form to distinguish entry-level from flagship handsets (leading to a cannibalisation of mid and flagship devices). There are also legacy branding issues to contend with, and app support from key ecosystem players is still a real challenge.
TIP – Renewed focus on the mid-range heartland combined with their service-driven strategy of Office, Cortana et al will encourage developer support to address the gaps in their app ecosystem. Cement the flagship distinction with a ‘Surface’ phone, to take advantage of the goodwill existing in the Pro and Surface Book ranges.
GOOD – HTC has continued to offer a decent selection of mid-range devices, with its Desire and One models well known on the smartphone scene.
IMPROVE – One A9 media reception, due to perceived iPhone similarities, harmed the brand.
TIP – Regain the focus that saw success in past years, and deliver more volume drivers in the mid-range.
GOOD – Sony is leading the charge in terms of specs appeal, with a 4K display and waterproof body, not to mention leveraging wider business technologies to deliver one of the best smartphone cameras on the market.
IMPROVE – Its handset design is largely identical through flagship cycles, as well as across price points through the range. Android customisation is proving restrictive in upgrade cycles, resulting in earlier customers turning away from the Sony brand.
TIP – Adopt an ‘innovate then iterate’ biennial cycle, and offer clearer distinction between flagships and within ranges. Serve existing Sony customers longer with support, software updates and benefits enjoyed as a new owner – continuing that wider Sony leverage through movies and games with the PlayStation association.
GOOD – Huawei’s success is built on offering incredible devices at low price points, with specs matching flagship models. Its major head-turner is the Nexus 6P.
IMPROVE – Brand awareness in alignment with networks. At the moment Huawei isn’t front of mind for either UK sellers or buyers, online or in store.
TIP – Build on ‘Honor’ brand and Nexus kudos to target grassroots fan engagement. Cater to early adopters, and consumers without brand bias, in bid to overcome the challenge in competing with established names.
GOOD – LG has innovated in recent hardware iterations, boasting strong recent devices. It delivered a second well-received Nexus device in the 5X.
IMPROVE – Refocus on brand differentiation in the flagship space (a tack which impressed many at the launch of the LG G5 and its myriad ‘Friends’) and aim to follow in the mid-range sector with 5X-esque follow-ups that compromise on certain features to offer compelling pricing.
TIP – Go back to basics and leverage its Google learnings – already underway with their VR collaborations – with a new wave of devices. Continue the positive momentum and pair the high-end experience with affordable price points. Its disruptive nature in the television space could well be emulated with the right selection of devices.
GOOD – Strong device pipeline, legacy brand resonance, and impressive key specs in multiple devices – including the award-winning unbreakable display in the Moto X Force.
IMPROVE – Its own pricing strategies from the Nexus 6 onward, and foster alignment and support with network promotion.
TIP – Cement position as the ‘affordable alternative’, using price adjustments to increase appeal. Make more of customisation and aesthetics for superficial appeal via MotoMaker, as well as provision of core features, like battery life and screen, that many customers desire most.