In the 10 short months since I wrote on the market forces influencing the global mobile phone market, and the implications of the democratization of innovation whose early, weak signals I could already foresee, matters have come to a head. I had written:
The locus of innovation in handset design, product planning and market strategy has moved its center away from the erstwhile first world to the former developing world i.e. India and China.
And along with this re-centering, ideas on business models and profit margins have changed to reflect those prevalent and appropriate for these new operating environments. Just look at this statement from Xiaomi’s Hugo Barra from an interview last week:
“Innovation is not a luxury item. Innovation is for everyone.”
The implications of this positioning are enormous, particularly given the conventional wisdom currently prevalent in the industry that the latest, greatest, cutting edge technology is a much sought after premium piece of hardware.
What are the current manifestations of this seismic shift in the source and diffusion patterns of innovation?
The era of the Apple product/pricepoint strategy is over for everyone, including Apple. Big ticket flagship devices released to much fanfare and the lining up around corners by fanbois may still continue to work for Apple but even for them the size of this target market has reached its limit. That is, they’ve captured all they could of the share of the market likely to rush out to buy the latest, greatest shiny at whatever price.
IDC’s latest forecast for smartphone sales until 2019 has this little snippet tucked in:
Markets with the biggest growth opportunity are extremely price sensitive, which IDC believes will not change, and this is the main reason Apple will be challenged to take Android share throughout the forecast. Even if Apple were to introduce another low-cost iPhone (e.g., C version), IDC believes the price will struggle to compete with Android OEMs that are focused on portfolios aimed at price points of $200 and less. This isn’t to suggest that Apple’s success with the iPhone won’t continue, and IDC believes its efforts to maintain significantly higher margins compared to its competitors are much more valuable than chasing share.
The implication is that new entrants should focus on the “cheap smartphone for poor Africans or Indians” shtick. But this would be the biggest mistake any self respecting brand could make. The entry level segment is completely saturated with Shenzen makes, refurbs, grey market boxes, and a hodge podge of low end models from all and sundry. This is the commodification we saw coming 6 years ago.
Here is where I see an opportunity for a maverick like Xiaomi to capitalize on Hugo Barra’s statement that innovation is not a luxury but for everyone.
The growth markets might be price sensitive but they’re neither stupid nor resigned to their fate. Whether it was the poor man’s car – the Tata Nano, or the slew of wellmeaning first worlder’s introducing frugal low cost technology for the social and economic wellbeing of the downtrodden, the downtrodden have turned up their noses to it all.
Not since Nokia’s heydays has any brand succeeded by flaunting its low cost solution as its USP – and Nokia never flaunted their affordability, they just ran a truck over their phones and let you make a call after. You couldn’t help but realize it was worth the price, offering the biggest bang for your buck. Many of us still reminisce over teh good old days of long lasting battery power and rugged Finnish engineering.
In the past 10 years, everything has been changed by the rise of the internet and proliferation of social media. The connected consumer’s aspirations have found their own level, like water, on a global scale.
People have learned that affordable phones don’t feel necessarily cheap
There is no tradeoff to be made if you’re in the market for a new smartphone. This is the result of the democratization of design, exemplified by Xiaomi, and the result of the race to the bottom of the pyramid. Growth markets are part of the prepaid economy, and the considerations around brand positioning, price point and marketing strategy are not what you have been led to expect.
Here are most demanding customers on earth, operating in the most challenging environment. The mass majority for mobile phones isn’t localized anymore, not even on a regional or continental level – its global. And this is tailor made for affordable innovation, a customer experience that makes you feel as special and as unique as any fanboi without the accompanying price tag.
Only two to three years ago, Xiaomi was just a copycat. Ignoring Xiaomi’s ambitions is a big reason why Samsung is now facing a crisis.
Now, we have to ask serious questions: “Who are you, Xiaomi?” and “Where are you going?” Only when we figure out the answers will we know where we will be heading, too.
Just a quick search to see where they’re going offers up such tidbits as ordering a new Xiaomi phone online to be delivered by Uber. Who they are is what their competition isn’t – an opportunity seeking conglomerate leveraging gaps in the innovation ecosystem. Business models, marketing, distribution, design planning – they are re-inventing the conventional to suit the flexible, social, frugal world of the prepaid economy’s connected consumers. Its a whole new ballgame. As I said 10 months ago, the era of big brand cellphones manufacturers is over.
The Big Shift for Device Design
- The market is global, local, social
- Aspirations will drive purchase decisions
- Innovation is not a luxury
- Experience has a price tag