What (Really) Drives Mobile Device Market Performance?


The computing landscape has drastically changed over the last five years. Consumers are increasingly seeking connected devices with majority of them being mobile. In fact, due to the aggressive buying habits of the US consumer, the overall computing landscape in terms of quarterly sales has unquestionably tilted towards smartphones and tablets. While Apple wasn’t the first one to launch the smartphone, its iPhone completely changed the market dynamics. Google’s Android and Samsung have also ridden the tidal wave perfectly. The US market has been ground zero in the battle of the mobile ecosystems, the war of computing platforms, and quarter-over-quarter sales hand-to-hand combat.

During the 2008-2010 timeframe, it was obvious that the gap between the iPhone and rival offerings was tremendous. The user interface, ease of use, and just the quality of product design won consumers over. Microsoft to its own admission completely misread the shifting landscape and paid dearly. Its once dominant share of computing (95%) was cut into less than half in a matter of four years. The disruption from iOS and Android was so intense that Microsoft had to go back to the drawing board. Microsoft wasn’t alone in being complacent. Once proud leaders of the mobile smartphone era – Nokia and RIM were in denial for a long time of the changing market. They did end up launching pretty credible offerings in 2012-2013 but were clearly late by half-a-decade. LG who once used to go toe-to-toe with Samsung in all major markets just couldn’t keep up with the frantic pace of innovation and product cycles and its weak structural beams gave up under stress. HTC, once the Android darling of the industry, had several mis-steps and hasn’t been able to recover ever since despite launching some great devices.

Given the massive shifts in the computing landscape, it will be instructive to understand “What really drives device market performance?” What factors influence the purchase behavior of the consumer? And can OEMs change their strategy to impact sales? Why have Microsoft and Nokia not been able to make a dent in the trajectory despite having a compelling OS, range of devices, consumer-friendly price-points, better distribution, and increased level of advertising dollars? Will Blackberry be able to recover? Why hasn’t HTC One been able sell in similar numbers as the Galaxy S4 despite being better by most accounts? What will it take for LG to increase share? Can Motorola stay relevant? Can new entrants disrupt the waters? Can ZTE and Huawei come from the bottom and disrupt the top players? Will Apple and Samsung be able to protect their position on the top?

We have tried to address these questions using a framework that looks at the complicated equation of market performance. It is based on subjective assessment but it is informed by data on some of the key variables that impact device sales. The model is applicable to tablet sales as well. It gives us a reference model that can provide an understanding of the shortcomings of certain OEMs relative to others.

By honing in on the model, and with real-time inputs to the model, one can also get a fair assessment of the future device sales. However, sales is just one metric to consider. One has to also look at revenue and profits along with the competitive positioning in the marketplace to truly assess the “market performance” of the player. Having a strong unit share position in the market place is desirable but not a necessary condition to have a strong market performance in a given market. The size of the revenues and profits matter a great deal as well. Similarly, how a company manages and maintains its competitive advantage is very critical. From 2007-2011, Nokia had a dominant unit share but its competitive roadmap looked terrible and the market recognized that. Similarly, Blackberry (then RIM) was the dominant smartphone player of 2008-2009 but it was pretty clear that it is going to end up at a significant disadvantage if it didn’t change its ways in responding to the iPhone.

The mobile market is far from static, it has changed dramatically over the last ten years and it will change again in the next ten. However, the factors that drive market performance are likely to stay consistent.

The paper is primarily focused on the US market; however, model can be adapted for any region or country provided that enough reliable data is available to feed the model. Using the model and our understanding of the industry, we will try to answer the questions raised in this introduction and discuss the most important question of them all – What really drives device market performance?

Your feedback is always welcome.

Chetan Sharma