Smartphone sales: budget handsets are in the box seat

Image: Yacine Petitprez - Flickr
Richard N. Block

Lightweight pricing opens up wider opportunities for consumers and developers, alike

Time was, smartphones were for executives, sports stars, and those willing to spend like them. When the original iPhone came out, it was a novelty to see a celebrity pictured with one. That wasn’t even ten years ago (the original iPhone launched in June 2007). Now, our whole lives are organized around these little glass-plastic-and-metal wonders, of which there are hundreds of different models from pricey to modest.

It’s this lower bracket that’s driving growth in the smartphone market, according to research firm Gartner. Specifically, manufacturers from China that have been disrupting the flagship-centric cell-phone market for some time now, offering affordable 4G phones that pare back some bells and whistles but still deliver solid basic functionality and even some slick design.

And, this is good news for everyone. Budget-stretched consumers in the west and vast tracts of the developing world will soon enjoy access to the panoply of apps in the ecosystem. Good news for them, good news for developers, and good news for those of us offering integrations.

Established phone makers are taking notice. For several years and several versions now, the Motorola Moto G has received good reviews and come out on top of many bang-for-your-phone-buck lists. Now, according to Digital Trends, LG is getting in the game:

It’s no surprise, then, that smartphone makers like LG are doubling down on the low-cost strategy. On Tuesday, the company announced the LG Aristo, an entry-level device set to launch on MetroPCS later this month.

(That report was filed in January; the phone is now available at MetroPCS and T-Mobile.)

Disruptors have major players adjusting their focus

“In a slowing smartphone market where large vendors are experiencing growth saturation, emerging brands are disrupting existing brands’ long-standing business models to increase their share,” said Anshul Gupta, research director at Gartner, in a press release. “With such changing smartphone market dynamics, Chinese brands are emerging as the new top global brands.”

Gartner’s figures show that the budget-phone and Chinese-brand trends are increasing. In the first quarter of 2015, there were two Chinese brands in the top five worldwide cell-phone manufacturers by market share, and they had 11 percent of the market combined, but by Q1 2016, there were three, with Oppo jumping to fourth place. Together, these three makers had 17 percent of the market.

In November 2016, when Gartner reported the Q3 figures, the most recent available, the Chinese makers’ share had gone up yet again. BBK Communication Equipment displaced Xiaomi at No. 5 — although it’s unclear why the company was included separately, as it is Oppo’s parent company. (BBK also makes OnePlus phones, popular among the cognoscenti as moderately priced flagship-killers.

One may guess that the company’s OnePlus and vivo brands account for the double-billing.) With Apple’s market share dipping over time (despite an uptick in the most recent quarter), Huawei is now nipping at Apple’s heels for second place worldwide.

The calamitous rollout of the exploding Galaxy Note 7 didn’t help established premium phone makers, either — Samsung in particular. Samsung’s smartphone sales in Q3 2016 declined over 14 percent, its worst year-on-year quarterly performance ever, according to Gartner.

However, according to analysis firm IDC, Samsung’s J series of budget phones may have helped contain the flood. According to IDC, “Samsung’s streamlined portfolio of devices, including the affordable J-series, proved successful in many mid-tier markets that were typically dominated by local brands” and helped the company retain the No. 1 spot despite the historically bad product launch.

The true mass-market becomes a reality

So what does this mean for companies who want to reach the widest possible cross-section of mobile users?

It’s pretty straightforward: whatever your offering, make sure it’s useable by people who aren’t using the speediest, most up-to-the-minute phone tech.

The Pixel by Google, which currently has tech writers tripping all over each other to offer praise, has fantastic specs, but the J7 (for example) has half the RAM and maxes out at half the onboard storage of the low-end Pixel. (It does have space for an SD card, but developers shouldn’t take that for granted if they want users to download apps or content.)

We’re not saying keep it Pong-simple; we’re just pointing out that to penetrate the growing market of smartphone users, keeping it modest might be wise.

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