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More Than 1 Out of Every 7 Handset Sales Is a Smartphone

Smartphones seem all the rages in press coverage and advertising. Maybe that's because they are a rapidly growing category. According to figures from IDC, 2009 worldwide shipments of smartphones represented 15.4 percent of all handset shipments, up from 12.7 percent in 2008. To put it differently, one out of every seven handsets sold in the world is a smartphone, according to these estimates. (Actually, it's about to 2 out of 13.) But as growth continues, that's going to lead to some interesting problems for carriers and fiscal challenges for vendors.

Let's start with looking at the data. Below are two charts from IDC -- one covering all handset sales, the other focusing on "converged mobile devices," or smartphones:

Note that the numbers are for vendor-branded sales, not products made for OEMs, so that is a significant potential limitation on interpreting the data. However, it's what we have. (I have an email in to IDC to see if they have numbers including OEM sales.)

Not only have smartphones risen as a percentage of total phone sales, but they actually grew in units from 2008 to 2009. Overall phone sales dipped by 5.2 percent over the same period. Another interesting comparison is to see who's who among the top five vendors in each category. Nokia (NOK) tops both lists and in either case is almost double the size of the next largest competitor. In smartphones, its sales were larger than those of RIM (RIM) and Apple (AAPL) put together. Samsung is the only other vendor in the top five for both all units and smartphones. However, it's trailing the latter pack. Even farther behind are LG, Sony Ericcson, and Motorola. Given where the growth is taking place, it's clear that all three companies will be focusing even more attention on creating smartphones.

But while it seems like a consumer electronics love fest, there are two potential numeric limitations on how easily the category can continue to expand. One is bandwidth. We're already hearing carriers screaming that they can't keep supplying data connectivity for flat rates, and as reader mkula rightly noted in the discussion about my post on Apple and RIM sales approaching the top five of all handset vendors last quarter (and, by the way, the IDC numbers back up those of ABIresearch), data plan costs could be a limiting sales factor. Carriers are demanding that smartphone purchasers pay for data plans, and that gets rolled into the perceived costs of the devices. Offsetting that is the factor I see of normal emotional marketing. As marketers know, people generally make choices based on emotions, not rational decisions. So if the carriers can hit the right price approach, they can get people to continue buying into the smartphones and yet using less bandwidth.

However, the other factor is going to be bigger. Many of the growing markets for carriers are in developing parts of the world where price sensitivity runs far higher than in the US. That is going to put heavy brakes on how much handsets can cost and how much carriers can expect to get for data usage. It makes me wonder whether that could cause some reshuffling among the smartphone platforms. Here are the ones that come to mind:

  • RIM
  • Apple iPhone
  • Palm (PALM) webOS
  • Microsoft (MSFT) Windows Mobile
  • Google (GOOG) Android
  • Symbian
Apple certainly has margin to spare on its handsets. Android and Symbian are both free open source solutions that vendors can use. The pressure is going to be heavily on Palm, which doesn't have Apple's financial staying power to drop prices, and on Microsoft, because it sees the OS itself as a way to make money, not as a way to open doors for advertising opportunities. As handset vendors try to expand smartphone sales into growing markets and find that their margins take a hit, I suspect they will increasingly marginalize both Palm and Microsoft in the mobile market.