Smartphone market finally expected to grow again in 2020

After years of misery, decline and shrinking profits, IDC is estimating the smartphone market might actually grow in 2020 thanks to 5G.

The 4G era produced a boom in technology adoption few would have predicted, though the years which followed were slightly less profitable. Since 2017, worldwide shipments of smartphones have been in decline, though it does seem the 5G buzz is living up to its reputation in at least one area.

Shipments are forecast to decline slightly over the remainder of 2019, however IDC is estimating year-on-year growth of 1.6% in 2020.

“The anticipation of 5G, beginning with smartphones, has been building for quite some time but the challenges within the smartphone market over the past three years have magnified that anticipation,” said Ryan Reith of IDC.

“To be clear, we don’t think 5G will be the savior in smartphones, but we do see it as a critical evolution in mobile technology. We expect the 5G ramp on smartphones to be more subtle than what we saw with 4G, but that is primarily because we are in a much different market today.”

The growth numbers are not as revolutionary as a decade ago, but they are certainly more palatable than another year of contraction.

2019 is proving to be another tough year for the smartphone manufacturers, IDC expects a year-on-year decline of 2.2% for the 12 months, though there are some glimmers of hope. Not only are 4G networks scaling in some developing markets opening-up a new window of opportunity for 4G handset sales, but the up-coming 5G euphoria creates an entirely new refreshment cycle in the developed markets.

This is something smartphone manufacturers and telcos have been looking forward to for years.

In the developed markets, as soon as smartphone penetration exceeded 100% of a country’s population, there was always going to be a struggle. Incremental improvements in terms of storage capacity, camera performance or software features, carried momentum for a period, but the decline of smartphone shipments was perhaps largely down to a lack of innovation.

Consumers are being asked to pay more for new devices, but without the attraction of innovation it becomes difficult to tolerate these purchases every year. A new camera is fine, but if it is only marginally better than the one you already have, does that justify the expenditure? Clearly it doesn’t as 2019 becomes the third-year straight for shipment declines.

This is what 5G offers manufacturers and telcos; something genuinely different to talk to consumers about and rationalise the process of purchasing a new device. It does something previous generations of devices do not.

Of course, despite the coverage limitations of 5G networks, the advertising campaigns are already in full swing, but who will be the winners and losers?

Samsung was one of the first leading brands out of the gate, and alongside Xiaomi, it could benefit significantly from the woes of Huawei. 12 months ago, we were contemplating if Huawei could overhaul Samsung and take the global market share lead, though a lot has changed during that period.

Huawei looks in a very suspect position currently. Its supply chain currently looks in a precarious position, and while this will not threaten the existence of the brand, it might lead some to question the quality of the end-product. US suppliers can be replaced, but can Huawei seek alternatives which can fulfil the same order quantities reliably, and will the components perform as well as those offered by incumbent suppliers?

One of the most interesting developments here concerns Google, its mobile applications and its Android operating system. Last week, both Google and Huawei confirmed the new Mate 30 will be shipped without the Google applications. There might be a workaround, though should the trade conflict between China and the US continue, Huawei will be forced to use its own Harmony OS.

This presents problems on two fronts. Firstly, will Android fan boys trust the unknown of a new operating system. And secondly, how much reputational damage has been done to Chinese brands by the White House; will consumers trust a Chinese brand without the middle man of a US operating system?

These are the unknowns, but the early signs do not look promising for Huawei. Research from Canalys suggests Huawei smartphone shipments in Western Europe during the most recent quarter has declined by 16% after President Trump dragged the brand through the mud, though there is an upshot for both Xiaomi and Samsung, who increased shipments 48% and 20% respectively.

Another brand which might suffer at the beginning of the 5G era is Apple.

“A lack of 5G support in the new iPhone won’t surprise anyone, though it will still disappoint operators looking for 5G devices to help them drive traffic to new 5G networks,” said Peter Jarich, Head of GSMA Intelligence.

“At the same time, new features that are expected – improved camera functionality, improved processor, upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 – may all seem incremental rather than revolutionary, particularly if the product line and form factor line-ups remain relatively constant.”

Apple has a very loyal customer base, while the closed-ecosystem has forced loyalty upon others. However, Apple will be testing the limits of loyalty. 5G will be plastered on every wall, each advert and on the lips of every consumer before too long. Apple will have to be confident it can convince customers to delay the purchase of a 5G device until it is ready to launch its own, otherwise it could risk losing those customers to the Android ecosystem permanently.

Looking at the IDC forecasts, iPhone shipments are expected to decline 14.8% year-on-year, due to market maturity and a lack of 5G-compatible device. When the firm does deliver its 5G device in 2020, it will have to prove it is better than rivals to justify the delay in delivery, otherwise the precious brand could be damaged.

This is not new from Apple. This is a company which doesn’t necessarily want to be the first to market, but it does invest heavily to be the best. It will have to do the same once again.

What is also worth noting, is this is just the beginning of the 5G era. A swing back to growth in 2020 for year-on-year smartphone shipments is encouraging, however the momentum will have to be compounded and the only way to do this is through the development of an ecosystem, applications and broader usecases.

Right now, the telcos and the ecosystem are only really talking about one thing; speed. If you believe the hype, 5G is going to be between ten and a hundred times faster than 4G. This might sound good as an advertising tagline, but a continued focus on speeds will become tiresome. Consumers will realise the excess speed is redundant soon enough, and this is another path which takes the telcos towards commoditisation.

More interesting usecases for 5G will have to emerge, and some of them will be reliant on improvements realised for latency.

Gaming is one area which is becoming increasingly dominated by mobile, and the more comfortable people are using higher volumes of data on the move, the greater this dominance will become. Lower latency will certainly help the case here, as more real-time gaming experiences become palatable.

The connected car is another development where 5G and lower latency could add to the momentum. Right now, the usecases are simplistic, though incremental gains in the connectivity world are improving the prospects for entertainment providers and application developers in the car. And we haven’t even mentioned the dreaded ‘autonomous’ tag this time around.

Of course, when you are talking about an entirely new generation of connectivity, you have to talk about the unknown. Perhaps the most exciting applications are the ones we mere mortals will struggle to imagine today. Uber is a perfect example.

Uber seems like the simplest idea today, but no-one else thought of the idea until Travis Kalanick. This is an application which was only possible because of 4G and the mass adoption of mobile internet, which makes us wonder what is in the pipeline. There will be blue sky thinkers who have an idea, but it can’t be validated or tested until 5G is scaled. This is when 5G devices could genuinely accelerate.

Marginal growth is all well and good for the moment, though the ecosystem will drive the next generation of profits. Having a snazzy new phone is fine for the early adopters and tech enthusiasts, but when the normmies start seeing how much more can be done through a 5G device, interest will scale much faster.

This is an area which is of course very difficult to quantify; what is the awareness of 5G in the consumer segments, and how much do they actually care?

According to research from Ericsson, half of smartphone users in South Korea and Australia, as well as 40% in the US, claim they do not have fast enough mobile broadband connections. Those who live in the big cities around the world will also be familiar with the challenge of network congestion, offering another buy-in for 5G contracts. Respondents to the survey said they would be prepared to pay 20% more on average to realise the benefits of 5G. Those who are more familiar with the concept of 5G, said they would tolerate a 32% increase in prices.

Of course, these projections are largely meaningless unless there is proof of accuracy. That said, in South Korea SK Telecom is claiming to have secured 1 million 5G postpaid subscriptions in the first four months of network operations. This represents 3.5% of the total subscribers at the telco, demonstrating there is an appetite for the new generation of mobile connectivity.

There is clearly an appetite for 5G connectivity, and should the manufacturers be able to produce a product which is tolerable for the consumers, there could be profits sooner rather than later.

“Solid push of 5G smartphones by the mobile operators in China in 2020 will drive economies of scale for the phone makers, and we will see the prices of these devices globally slide down to much more acceptable levels from their current highs,” said VP of Forecasting at CCS Insight, Marina Koytcheva.

“5G will not drive everyone to the shops in a search for a new phone, but for a group of technology enthusiasts- early adopters of all things tech- the new generation of mobile technology will act as a catalyst for replacing their current smartphones.”

This is an awkward challenge which the manufacturers will face; pricing. Smartphones are eye-wateringly expensive nowadays, perhaps a contributor to the shipments decline, and 5G devices are likely to see another premium added onto the tag.

This will at least be the challenge in penetrating the smartphone market in the early days, though Koytcheva is a bit more confident than IDC. CCS Insight are suggesting shipments could increase by 3% year-on-year over the next twelve months. This number will account for 4G devices in increasingly digitised developing markets, though 5G will add impetus in the developed nations.

But the challenge still remains; if 5G smartphones are going to anywhere near replicate the success of 4G predecessors, economy of scale in manufacturing operations will have to be achieved.

We suspect, and many others do also, that 5G devices will not take the world by storm in the same way 4G devices did. The transition from 3G to 4G was much more dramatic in the consumer world than the current transition we are anticipating today. The long-tail of applications and network evolution might be greater, but the up-front glories will not necessarily be the same.

That said, even if it is marginal year-on-year growth for smartphone shipments, that is a lot better than a fourth consecutive year of contraction.