As regular readers and participants of our annual mobile thought-leadership summit – Mobile Future Forward, know that we publish a book that contains essays from thought-leaders on the future of mobile from around the world. For the 2011 edition, we had the good fortune of getting a contribution from Frank Meehan who was then the CEO of INQMobile.
Frank has been behind some of the initial disruptions in the mobile space such as tight integration of Skype when he was with 3 UK much before than it became fashionable to do so. Similarly, his team launched the first Facebook Phone, the first Twitter Phone and proved that a tight integration of the OTT apps makes all the difference. So, I was delighted for him to pen down a piece on “Buying a Mobile Device in 2014” for he has the insights, the experience and the sincerity to tell it as he sees it. I am excited to make this piece available to our readers.
Frank is now with venture capital firm Horizons Ventures (owned by Hong Kong business magnate Li Ka-shing, whose Hutchison Whampoa is the parent company of INQ), Frank continues to be actively involved in some of the most innovative companies that are disrupting the status quo of telecoms.
Thank You Frank.
Buying a Mobile Device in 2014 by Frank Meehan
From its inception the mobile handset has been an unusual consumer device. It became an extremely coveted product that nonetheless was always way behind the fixed world in terms of its capabilities. Hardware was often very design driven, with vendors playing around with cameras and form factor more than the technical capabilities of the handsets. But it was incredibly convenient and desired by all, so the mobile industry coasted along on a relatively closed model that worked for all concerned.
Of course, in 2007 Steve Jobs looked as this cosy situation between handset manufacturers and operators, which in effect did not deliver anything of earth shattering innovation to the customer, decided this status quo was ripe for disruption, and then proceeded to rip up and reshape the industry in a very effective and efficient manner.
So now in 2011, the landscape has altered dramatically, in a way that has left the big vendors of the 2000’s fighting to stay relevant. Over the next couple of years, the hardware "arms race" will accelerate to the point where only a few can really stand the pace at the top - with Apple and Samsung leading the way and everyone else back in second place. Businesses that were set up around specific mobile models and software suddenly have found that mobile really is becoming blended into fixed and that the traditional ways of differentiation are rapidly disappearing.
Mobile devices really are becoming just like "PC’s" in that the customer is becoming more savvy about hardware specifications, and less "brand loyal" with the exception of Apple. In fact looking forward 2-3 years, there will be little to differentiate mobile versus the traditional definition of fixed.
Everything essentially becomes a screen. Whether it is a desktop, laptop, tablet or handset.
These screens will be incredibly high powered. In 2012 we already have quad core chipsets coming. That is an incredible amount of computing power, yet the user interface on mobiles does not take advantage of it. Software is behind hardware now, except for 3D games, there is little on a handset that takes advantage of the processors.
So the focus now will be developing software to match this rapid processor jump. Already with Windows 8 we’re starting to see the first natural user interfaces that were first envisioned back in the film Minority. This is the start of the next big jump in a user experience, where the consumer naturally just shifts content around and will only get faster, more visually striking and more useful.
When asked to think about any future vision or experience, I try to articulate the answer in terms of how a customer will actually be driven to purchase that product at the point in time, which in this article is set at 2014.
The mobile device buying experience for a customer in 2014
A customer considering buying a mobile device, in 2014 will have an incredibly wide range of choices about where to buy and what to buy, with four main areas of choice:
1. The ecosystem. In 2014 there will still be 3 major OS ecosystems to buy into, which help connect all their devices, from home to car to work. Those will be from Google, Apple and Microsoft. Everything else will have too small a market share to be significant.
The ecosystems are not mutually exclusive, since the key companies have long developed cross platform versions of their products, and HTML5 has largely replaced vendor controlled application stores. But each customer will have the majority of their devices on a certain ecosystem. The mobile device market will be quite similar to the PC market today. Apple will command a premium; everyone else will fight over tight margins, which are likely supplemented with software and advertising revenues by the smart vendors. The customer will be quite aware of where their media is stored, which system delivers it best and how easy it is to use. In that respect, Apple will still be the clear leader.
2. The hardware. The customer buys primarily on specifications, just like they do with a PC, laptop or TV in 2011. By 2014 the average customer is very tech savvy at the tech inside, such as screen capabilities, processors, memory, etc. They have little loyalty, but if their current vendor has a new device which is great on price, spec and design than they will naturally like to stay with that vendor. However, if someone else has better technology at the right price, then they will switch.
Buying mobile devices in 2014 is like the PC or TV buying experience of today. By 2014, the high margins enjoyed by non Apple handset vendors will disappear as the tech spec wars drive customers to buy only the latest and best specifications, which commoditizes the devices . Since everyone else will be running either Android/Chrome or Windows, the device itself is just a spec, with some nice design being the main differentiation between devices of similar specification. Of course, there will always be one vendor who brings out a technical marvel, be that wraparound screens, flexible screen etc, but within 6-12 months everyone has caught up and it’s back on spec again. Just like the TV business.
Devices have become commoditized, and the inevitable point in the industry where a device is just more or less a screen has been reached. Whether it is TV, Laptop, tablet or handset, everything is about the screen, and due to their superior technology in this area, the leader in 2014 is likely Samsung. Naturally matched by Apple with it’s superior user experience, design and hardware.
Also, Apple and Samsung are the only two companies in 2014 who can bring out truly ground breaking technology fast enough, sexy enough and most importantly to the widest distribution. Together they control around 40-50% of all devices, with low cost vendors taking up most of the rest - similar to the TV market today. There are some expensive niche players, but the volume is via Samsung and Apple. However, disruptors are at play, more of that later.
Essentially handset vendors have found themselves having to be extremely efficient distribution machines with high hardware R&D costs. Devices last no more than 6 months before being replaced in retail, and customers differentiate very strongly between hardware and software brands.
The customer will be buying far more mobile devices online than they do today, driving overall cost of ownership down. As devices have become more commoditized, people buy devices online just like they buy laptops, TVs and tablets. Although they will go to a major outlet to see, use and browse the handset, their buying choices are much greater.
The new world has also thrown up big new mobile brands, which are built around a strong online presence, wrapping up software and hardware in low cost devices sold directly to consumers. These brands have a completely new connection with the consumer, who sees them as delivering considerable value, plus some will be able to stand out with great software as well. By 2014, the web has really revolutionized mobile retail as well.
4. Subscriptions and payments
By 2014, consolidation around operators in cable, fixed and mobile, means that the biggest just got bigger and are now dominating home, mobile and office access. Which has led to devices being less subsidized as operators look to bring cash flows forward. Also the key ecosystem players are spending considerable amounts to subsidize subscriptions and devices which have also improved operator cash flows. Operators in most countries have also decided that their considerable retail estates were not an efficient use of cash and have consolidated their shops, concentrating instead on internet sales, especially as devices have become much easier to sell online.
Operators have diverted cash into developing applications, services and online payment mechanisms which deliver greater margins combined with access subscriptions than previous times.
This means that consumers likely get a free hub from their operator which delivers access, services and media to multiple devices. But the devices themselves are mostly paid for by the subscriber, even handsets. Consumers also have multiple devices leading to less desire from operators to subsidize, instead their cash has been diverted to subsidizing the big media players such as Spotify, Netflix, YouTube, Xbox Live and Hulu to entice subscribers, which will make the device prices far more transparent to consumers.
In short, handheld devices may be technological marvels, but by 2014, they will also have become just like any other consumer device and the "mobile industry" has become part of a much broader device industry.