Smartphones a mobile market in jostle for dominance

“It’s kind of one more entrant into an already very busy space with lots of choice for consumers,” the rapidly expanding smartphone maker’s co-chief executive said of an announcement from a nascent competitor.

“But in terms of a sort of sea-change for [us], I would think that’s overstating it.”

It was early 2007. The co-chief was Jim Balsillie of the BlackBerry maker RIM. The “one more entrant”, of course, was the iPhone. The rest is history.

RIM and Blackberry’s fall from the pinnacle of the smartphone market, painfully documented in Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s illuminating book Losing the Signal, is just one example of how even the biggest mobile companies can take their eye off the ball and fall out of favour, with a new upstart ready to jump into their shoes.

Researching customers’ mobile buying trends at City Center Mall in Deira on my first visit to Dubai 13 years ago, Nokia was the preferred brand among UAE consumers, just as it was back in the United Kingdom.

But, while Motorola, Siemens and Ericsson were snapping at Nokia’s heals in Britain, Nokia’s closest competitor in this country was a South Korean company known at the time (at least by me) more for its DVD players and washing machines than its mobiles.

Fast forward to 2015, and Samsung is the world’s largest seller of smartphones. Nokia, whose disastrous acquisition by Microsoft in 2013 deserves a book of its own, disappeared from the smartphone scene altogether last year.

And while Motorola lives on, having been acquired by Lenovo last year, Siemens and Ericsson are distant memories in the handset space.

Samsung and Apple together accounted for 37.3 per cent of global smartphone shipments in the third quarter of the year, according to the industry analyst IDC, with other manufacturers struggling to generate momentum.

“Beyond Apple and Samsung, brand loyalty is much more fickle, and much more flash-in-the-pan,” says Ashish Panjanbi, the chief operating officer of electronics retailer Jacky’s Electronics.

“Manufacturers will make one device that will sell well, but then the follow up will disappoint and people will move on.”

HTC is just one example of this trend; the Taiwanese manufacturer made a big splash in early 2013 with the HTC One M7, later named phone of the year by the GSM Association.

However, its successors, the M8 and this year’s M9, failed to catch the imagination of reviewers and customers, leading to a further slide in the manufacturer’s already minimal market share.

Even the market leader Samsung is showing signs of strain. Shipments of the Galaxy S6, such as those of 2014’s S5, have fallen, with customers seeing few improvements to tempt them to upgrade.

The company, meanwhile, underestimated demand for its S6 Edge curved edge phones, one of its most innovative products in years.

Last week Samsung announced that its mobile division leader J K Shin was stepping down to be replaced by Dong Jin Koh, the former head of mobile research and development.

And while Samsung handset shipments increased during the past quarter, much of that came from mid-range devices such as the Samsung Galaxy J, rather than high-end models like the S6 Edge.

Brand loyalty, difficult enough to retain among high-end smartphones, is nigh on impossible to generate within the mid-range segment, according to Mr Panjabi.

“In this segment people don’t upgrade to get the most recent model, they only tend to replace their phone when it actually needs replacing,” he says.

“Brand loyalty doesn’t play as much a part in people’s purchase choice as how it looks and feels in your hand. You’ll see people starting off with a Lenovo, then upgrading to a Huawei, and then moving on to another brand like Samsung.”

Huawei stands out as the manufacturer making the most concerted push to win new brand loyalty among customers, says Mr Panjabi.

For years known as a manufacturer of cheap and rather basic smartphones, in recent years the Chinese manufacturer has dramatically expanded its product offering, with devices such as the P8 and the Mate S giving products from Samsung and Apple a run for their money.

The company, which saw its mobile shipments market share rise to 7.5 per cent during the third quarter, has also invested heavily in marketing and branding, last year becoming the first Chinese brand to be listed on Interbrand’s prestigious 100 best global brands list.

And, in a push to attract local customers, the company last year signed up the Lebanese pop star Nancy Ajram as its Middle East brand ambassador.

But despite the rise of Huawei and fellow Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi, it is perhaps a little early to write the obituaries for the popular brands of yesteryear.

Despite exiting from the smartphone space last year, Nokia lives on as a well-liked manufacturer of basic “feature” phones, with three of its devices among the top five most-used phones in the UAE at the end of last year, according to data from the UAE’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.

Motorola, meanwhile, has enjoyed something of a comeback in the past two years, thanks to the success of its Moto G and X ranges, to the extent that its parent Lenovo announced last month it would brand all smartphones in the US$200 to $800 category under the Motorola brand.

And despite all its woes, BlackBerry continues to cling to life, with a small but dedicated group of followers still determined to give it yet another chance.

In October, the company announced its new flagship Priv smartphone, featuring a curved screen, slide out keyboard and extra security features.

While reviews have so far been mixed, one Abu Dhabi IT manager last month sang the device’s praises, highlighting the usefulness of the BlackBerry Hub, the ability to use the slide out keyboard as a trackpad, together with the security features.

“I have friends who say that they’re sick of their BlackBerries, but still pepper me with questions about when the Priv is going to hit the shops in the UAE,” says Mr Panjabi.

“These people have stuck with BlackBerry for years, complaining about BB10, but it seems that there’s still something in the brand that keeps them holding on and coming back.”


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