China

Unbundling innovation: Samsung, PCs and China

It seems pretty clear now that the Android OEM world is starting to play out pretty much like the PC world. The industry has become unbundled vertically between components, devices, operating system and application software & services. The components are commoditised and OEMs cannot differentiate on software, so they are entering a race to the bottom of cheaper and cheaper and more and more commoditised products, much like the PC industry. 

The funny thing about this is that part of the original promise of Android was that it would allow OEMs to avoid this. Part of the promise was that because Android was open, OEMs would be free to customise it to differentiate their products on top of a common platform. But of course, it hasn't really worked out like that. I think there are a couple of reasons why. 

The first is that 'a common platform that OEMs can differentiate on' is very close to a contradiction in terms. Microsoft never pretended to allow OEMs to change Windows in that sense, and it quickly emerged that if you did change Android in any really important way it was no longer part of the common platform, but a fork. This is what Amazon has done with the Kindle Fire, and Google's reaction (as the sole arbiter of what is nor is not a fork) is that if you do that, you lose access to all Google's own apps, tools and APIs for Android. It wasn't entirely clear 4 and 5 years ago how big a deal that would be - how much of the value of a smartphone operating system would be in those embedded meta-services and cloud services from the platform provider. But now it's apparent that if you don't have those then you're really only selling a featurephone, at least as far as a normal consumer is concerned, and the only companies that have the assets and resources to build those things themselves (outside China, which is another world for Android) are Amazon (perhaps) and Microsoft. 

So, as an Android OEM, you can't practically make fundamental changes to Android anymore than a Windows OEM can make them to Windows. What you can do is to try to add value on top. That hasn't worked either, for several reasons:

  • Most of these companies are simply not good at software and services: the operating structures and skills required are totally different and hard to build
  • Anything that they add, even if it's actually really good, is competing with everything on the app store and everything on the internet. So even if they're good at software and do make (or buy or partner with) something good, it's just another app amongst many. The whole point of open platforms and indeed the internet is permissionless innovation - you don't need the OEM's permission to innovate. Again, how can an OEM differentiate by adding things when a user can add anything they want themselves? 
  • If they do anything cool that requires any sort of third party support they probably won't get it, because the ecosystem effects are at the platform level, not the OEM level. Hardly anyone will support something cool that only works on Samsung Android phones (or only some Samsung phones). 

The general point here is that the differentiation moved from one part of the stack to another (or, perhaps, to a new layer). The OEMs' own software used to be a core part of the purchase decision - that was Nokia's advantage with Series 40. But now that way to differentiate has moved up the stack to a new layer that the OEMs struggle to access - it's controlled by Google.  

There's another parallel here, I think, with what happened to the mobile operators. If you go back to 2000, they were all intensely aware of all the cool stuff that was going to happen with mobile and the internet.  They predicted a great deal of it very accurately, but they thought that they would be doing all of it. And of course what happened was that again, that innovation and differentiation layer got unbundled - it moved up to a new layer at the top of the stack, and the handset OEMs and MNOs were equally unable to access those services. Just like the OEMs:

  • The MNOs were structurally bad at making services
  • Even if they were good those services were just one amongst many
  • The network effects for these services ran across the whole internet, not just their customers. 

That is, MNOs tend to be bad at innovation in internet services, but even if they aren't, it isn't their place to provide it. It isn't their place in the stack to make a great video sharing site or a cool photo messaging app, even if they could. The analogy I often use in this case is that for an MNO to get into apps and content is like a municipal water company deciding to get into the soda business - because it knows water, and has trucks, and customers trust its brand. Even if it managed to come up with a great soda, it would still be just another can of soda amongst many. (Continuing the analogy, of course, it also makes little sense for soda companies to think they can get into the municipal water business - nor for tech companies to think they're going to disrupt mobile operators). 

When you unbundle an industry, you get new and different types of innovation in different layers of the stack. The skills you had in the bundled world may well still apply in the layer you find yourself in. Hence Samsung carries on doing interesting and impressive things in components, and can innovate up to a point in handsets, with things like phablets, so long as they do not depend on concessions from other parts of the stack. Equally, for example, Dell created an entirely new type of PC company - the PC company as a highly specialised logistics business - without differentiating at the operating system layer at all. 

But what's happened for PCs and smartphones and, to a large extent, mobile networks is that it's that top layer of the stack, that the PC and Android OEMs  and operators struggle to play in, that's where most of the differentiation happens. That's the stuff that makes the difference between a commodity and something unique. This is obviously something of a wrench. After all, especially for the phone companies and mobile operators, this is what they always felt they should be doing, and now other people are doing it instead, free-riding on top of their work and their investment. 

Samsung, Apple and Microsoft are all strong in two layers: Samsung in components and devices, Apple in devices and operating systems and Microsoft in operating systems and application software. Each of these companies has cross-leveraged these adjacent strengths to create better products and a stronger market position. Samsung has used the scale of the component business and access to those components to drive the devices business and vice versa, despite failing, mostly, to create compelling software differentiation. This leveraging of scale, combined with some great execution, has taken it to at least half of the total Android market. 

The problem is that Samsung is increasingly competing with another sort of scale effect - it is competing with the entire Shenzhen ecosystem. Before, it was competing with individual companies (many of which happened to use that ecosystem), and like Nokia before it was fortunate in the relative weakness of most of its competitors. As for Nokia, that luck was bound to run out. Now Samsung is starting to face competition with new companies who are finding ways to build new types of handset businesses on top of that ecosystem - taking that ecosystem and using it to unbundle Samsung.

The company that everyone talks about here is Xiaomi, which has created the skills to build both good services and software and good handsets. Xiaomi has faced the fork problem by working out how to dance right up to the edge without going over - Hugo Barra described it as a 'compatible fork'. Rather than turning Android into a fork, it has, so to speak, polished it, adding features and services without breaking anything. And so it has created real differentiation at the operating system layer without losing access to Google services, which its devices outside China all use. 

But there are lots and lots of other interesting Android companies unbundling, both within the price range, with some attacking the mid range and there the low end at under $100, and geographically, with companies like Micromax, Karbonn or Blu or Wiko peeling off particular geographies. In effect, this is the Dell innovation - not trying to get into the other parts of the stack (though Dell has moved into other businesses), but at being really really good at your own part. 

This also reminds me a little of Facebook. Facebook's integrated social platform model has been unbundled by mobile, with the social graph that it owns on the desktop being replaced by the smartphone itself as a social platform that all social apps can plug into. Hence, there have been dozens of new and interesting services peeling off parts of the use case or creating new ones. Making good services in this space does not require a totally different type of company, in the way that making good services and running a mobile network require different types of companies, and Facebook's 'constellation' approach to unbundling its apps has resulted in some perfectly good products, but so far none of them has risen above the status of 'just another social app' - they're all just another can of soda. 

700m smartphones & tablets in China

Umeng's 2013 report has just come out, and it's full of fascinating data. (Umeng is an app analytics firm, much like Flurry, and has its code in a very large share of apps in use in China.)

Striking data points: 

  • There were 700m active smartphones and tablets in China at the end of 2013, and this almost doubled from 380m in Q1
  • High-end phones are a big market: 27% of the total active base, and 80% of those are iPhones
  • 55% of the top 1000 apps include links to the major Chinese social platforms
  • 20% of the top games use licensed third-party IP
  • App use and game use varies by how expense the phone is (unsurprising, but some good data on the details)
  • The Android market remains fragmented: Samsung has 24% (much lower than globally), Xiaomi is in 4th place and 'other' is a third of the market
  • And finally, pretty much every app category has at least doubled its active users in the year. 

Note: A few people have suggested that the implied number of iPhones seems high as a percentage of total iPhone sales. (Umeng hasn't given a smartphone number to apply 80% of 27% to, but other estimates are about 500m = 108m). However, if you take imports of second-hand iPhones into account the percentage looks much more reasonable.  

China scale

A pretty simple but striking juxtaposition: the size of the Chinese mobile internet market versus the US smartphone market. There are over 1.2bn mobile subscriptions in China, and though China is still a much less prosperous place than the USA, even the top half - the half that's using the mobile internet and buying 3G phones (almost exclusively smartphones at this stage) - is more than double the size of the US smartphone base. 

(Strictly speaking, I should put the Chinese smartphone install base on this too, but that data is rather less solid, and the point remains.)

The meaning of really cheap Android

One of the big puzzles in trying to understand the tablet market is data. Apple is pretty much the only large manufacturer giving unit sales, and not only are Samsung and Amazon saying nothing, but there are hundred of Chinese companies making Android tablets, and few if any say anything publicly. In the phone business the story is rather easier, since Google says roughly how many Android devices are being activated outside China, and give a screen size breakdown, and the Chinese mobile operators have a good sense of smartphone sales inside China. But in tablets there is no-one with an overall view of sales. 

This means that analysts have to fall back on component makers. Though there are hundreds of companies making tablets, they almost all use more or less off-the-shelf chipsets from a handful of companies. These companies have a good sense of the overall number of tablet chips that are being sold into the manufacturers. So too do the screen markers - they have a good sense how many 7” panels are being sold. So you take an estimate of tablet chip sales and an estimate of tablet screen sales (and take into account people using ‘phone’ chips in tablets) and you estimate tablet sales, both inside and outside China.

The obvious problem with this is that these devices are being used in very different ways. It seems clear that most of the huge numbers of sub-$150 Android tablets now being sold do not have anything like the web or app usage that is seen on an iPad, Nexus or Galaxy Tab, and that many are mainly used as substitutes for TV sets, with maybe some gaming on the side. 

The deeper issue, though, is that estimating tablet sales in this way is a little like trying to estimate global car sales by working out how many internal combustion engines are being made, and how many tyres, but not adjusting for motorbikes, cranes, outdoor generators or 18 wheelers. Lots of ‘tablet' chips and ‘tablet' screens do not actually end up in tablets.

Consider this device, one of thousands of similar products on offer on Alibaba - an in-car video player running Android, complete (if the screenshot is to be believed) with the phone app. This probably doesn’t activate with Google, but it certainly looks like a ‘tablet’ to LG or Rockchip.


Then there’s this TV dongle - no screen, but does it have a ‘tablet’ chip? A ‘phone’ chip? If you used it to watch Youtube, what would Google think it was? (Note also the memory card slot, used for side-loading pirate movies.)

Now what about this, from Steelcase? An meeting room door with a 7” capacitive touch screen. To a component maker, this is also a tablet. I have no idea if it runs Android today, but if it doesn’t, it probably should. And if Nest doesn’t, the copies of it will. 

The important dynamic here is that a combination of very cheap off-the-shelf chips and free off-the-shelf software means that Android/ARM has become a new de facto platform for any piece of smart connected electronics. It might have a screen and it might connect to the internet, but it’s really a little computer doing something useful and specialised, and it probably has nothing to do with Google.

As should be obvious, this makes counting total ‘Android' devices as though they tell you something about Google or Apple’s competitive position increasingly problematic. But to me, pointing out that ‘Android’ doesn’t necessarily competed with iPad is rather boring - what’s really interesting are the possibilities that these new economics might unlock. 

A good example is this - a 2G Android phone wholesaling for $35 (just one of hundreds). 

Now, stop thinking about it as a phone. How do the economics of product design and consumer electronics change when you can deliver a real computer running a real Unix operating system with an internet connection and a colour touch screen for $35? How about when that price falls further? Today, anyone who can make a pocket calculator can make something like this, and for not far off the same cost. The cost of putting a real computer with an internet connection into a product is collapsing. What does that set of economics enable? 

There are other interesting hardware trends that overlap with this as well. Bluetooth LE is the obvious one - you can make a widget that broadcasts a location ID for $50 or less, stick it on a wall, and the battery will last for years. EInk is also interesting here: it needs no power to show something, only to change, and you can pass enough power over an induction touch point to cycle the screen. The problem here is cost, but why doesn’t my Oyster card show the remaining balance? Why wouldn't Coin (a product I'm rather skeptical of, mind) show the cards loaded onto it on one side with an eink display? How do these trends interact with cheap Android computing?

Marc Andreessen famously coined the phrase 'software is eating the world’ to describe the way that functions that used to be served by dedicated hardware are now being subsumed by general purpose devices - mostly smartphones. But there’s also the beginnings of a trend in the other direction - devices that weren’t smart and didn’t get merged into the phone gaining a digital presence of their own, and creating a new set of opportunities. 

iPads, price and self-selection

Apple's iPad event was pretty unsurprising. It was obvious that the large one would be speed-bumped and get lighter. It was also obvious that the Mini would get retina at some point - the  only question was whether the supply chain could deliver enough panels now (with some well-informed people suggesting it could not), and the late-November ship date and $400 price point to how close it was. 

The lack of fingerprint scanning in both the new models was a surprise - it may again be a supply problem, but it means that any platform play Apple has in mind (ie payment) will have a smaller install base to launch onto. 

However, the big puzzle is the price the now old Mini is discounted to: $300. This compares poorly to a new Nexus 7, with comparable resolution to the retina Mini, at $230. The Nexus 7 is of course being sold at very low margin by Google, but does the old Mini really need to be $300 rather than, say, $275 or $250? What is Apple thinking?

On a simplistic level, Apple's tablet market share is clearly shrinking. The chart below, taken from a presentation I've been giving in the Bay Area this week, shows my estimates of tablet unit sales. (They're in increasing order of certainty as you go from top to bottom. Kindle Fire is not included, since I lack the grounds to do quarterly estimates, but obviously it is not relevant outside the USA and a few other markets).

Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 10.42.10 pm.png

Apple's recent sales decline is largely a product cycle issue, but clearly, sales of other tablets are growing fast. And yet Apple is allowing the price window underneath the iPad to become meaningful. Why?

To me, the really interesting thing about this chart is how small Nexus sales are. Here is a good device with a nice clean Android install, sold at a very aggressive price. On Google's own numbers, almost no-one buys it. Why? Why do sales of the Nexus 10 appear to be under 1m units?

Meanwhile, every single data set shows iPad with at least three quarters of tablet use, be it app installs, web use or any other third-party engagement metric you want. Where are all those other, non-Nexus Android tablets? What's being done with them?

What seems to be happening is that if you want the post-PC vision that Apple and Steve Jobs created, you probably buy an iPad, and Apple has a large majority of that market, and hence of the use of devices for that purpose. This isn’t very surprising: the Android tablet app offer remains far behind the iPad in a way that the Android phone app offer does not. 

But there's also another proposition, a $75-$150 black generic Chinese Android tablet, half the price of a Nexus 7. That proposition is also selling in huge numbers, but it appears to come with a very different type of use. 

Why are people buying these? What are they being used for? They're mostly in China (that’s the pink bar above) and emerging markets and in lower income groups in the west. And it seems that they're being used for a little bit of web, and a  bit of free gaming. Perhaps some book reading. And a LOT of video consumption. In fact, one might argue that for many buyers, these compete with TVs, not iPads, Nexuses and Tabs. But regardless of what they’re being used for, they’re not being used the way iPads are used. In effect, they are the featurephones of tablets. 

If this theory is correct, it suggests that Apple's $300 Mini really isn't a competitive problem, because the iPad doesn't yet face a strong competitive threat (quite unlike the iPhone). Rather, there are actually two quite different markets: the post-PC vision, where Apple is dominant, and a ultra-low margin product that’s also called a tablet but which is really a totally different product. 

Chinese app platforms

Looking at the Chinese mobile market today reminds me a lot of looking at the Japanese model in 2000 or 2001 - lots of very interesting stuff is going on, but getting reliable data is very tough.  

One triangulation point comes from app analytics platforms. You need to have some caution as to how representative they are, but the big ones give a good directional steer. Umeng (think Flurry for China) is one of the biggest. It puts out statistical reports every quarter or so - these are some of the key charts in the latest. 

First, platform size - this is their estimate of active devices that are using apps (not total devices), including tablets.  

Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 15.33.55.png

Both iOS and Android are growing fast, and Android faster, as one would expect given the range of prices that Android devices are offered at. However, on this data there are probably more iOS devices in China than smartphones in the USA. 

Second, handset brands. Apple is the largest single brand in this data set, but shrinking. This of course is users, not ongoing sales, so some recent suggestions that (for example) Xiaomi outsold iPhone in the run-up to the iPhone launch may be compatible with this. 

Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 15.33.43.png

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, a window into the state of Android in China. As most people know, the great majority of Android devices sold in China are built on AOSP and have no Android services pre-installed (indeed, I've used a Motorola phone with no Google services present) - instead they have a range of apps from the local internet giants. 

This means that most Android phones have no Gmail, Google Now, Google Maps or, of course, Google Play, and most apps are installed form third party app stores or side loaded, either pirated or downloaded directly from publishers' sites. Some handsets do have these, either because people added them afterwards (which is not easy) or because they're using grey market imports. Estimates of the total with Google apps on them are mostly in the 20-30% range. However, on Umeng's data, Google Play amounts to just 5.6% of Android app installs in China. OEM app stores are 8.5%. This, for example, is why Baidu paid $1.8bn to buy a couple of app stores earlier this year. 

Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 15.33.36.png

The price of the 5C

 At this stage it looks as though everything about Apple's 'cheaper phone' has been leaked - plastic casing, choice of colours, '5C' name, same screen as the current iPhone 5, and a transparent box to help retail sales. Everything, of course, except the price - which is all that really matters.

What price would Apple choose for a genuinely cheaper phone? There are four brackets worth looking at:

  1. $100-$150 – this is where budget Chinese manufacturers are starting to deliver  usable dual-core 3G Android phones
  2. $150-$200 – the upper end of what is possible to sell to the unsubsidised prepay market - which is half the planet
  3. $200-$400 – almost certainly out of reach without subsidies but a solid mid-range smartphone price range
  4. Over $400 – similar price to the existing discounted two-year-old model, but with more up-to-date technology, possibly higher margins and probably an easier marketing sell than the ‘old’ phone 

The first of these price points requires too many product experience compromises from Apple, while the leaks we've seen so far seem to show a device that would not be priced $200 or under, ruling out most prepay.

So, the decision is where to sit in the mid-range. The interesting dynamic in this is the tension between the USA and China.  

The US contract phone pricing structure today effectively puts a lower limit on the viable price for a contract smartphone. The ($450) iPhone 4 and similar high-mid range Android phones are sold as 'free' on contract'; phones whose list price is actually much lower are sold at the same price. A $200 phone is sold to consumers at the same price as a $400 phone - and hence is very uncompetitive. 

One effect of this is that the iPhone 4 and 4S made up a quarter of Verizon Wireless contract smartphone sales in Q4 2012 and Q1 2013, a much higher share than they appear to have elsewhere. In the USA they're as cheap as any contract phone on the market - everywhere else they're cheaper than the iPhone 5 but still relatively expensive. The Android ASP, after all, is $250-300. Everywhere else $200 and $300 Android massively outsells $400-$600 iPhone: in the USA much of that price advantage is removed. 

So, a $300 or $250 iPhone is a tough sell in the USA. But a $450 iPhone is a tough sell in China. Xiaomi, after all, just announced a very compelling new phone, the M3, at $330, and that may not be staying in China

Screen Shot 2013-09-05 at 10.45.39.png

Hence the tension: which is more important to Apple? It already has 40-45% share of smart sales in the USA, which was just 12% of the global smartphone market in Q2. But it can't launch a phone that doesn't work at all in the USA (nor is it likely to persuade the US operators to drop their pricing to remove this distortion) - which points to a higher price, higher spec model. The further you go below $400 the more you get a phone that's tough to sell in the USA. 

But too high, and the current dynamic may not change - Apple remains camped out in the top 10% of the global handset market while all the rest converts to Android - and this is a problem

The true unknown in this, of course, is that while we know that any $300 iPhone would sell very well, we don't know how much better a new $400 or $450 iPhone would sell than the current "two year old" $450 iPhone. How much difference would the screen, coloured plastic casing and 'newness' make?