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Will Apple’s iPhone Penetrate The Key Mobile Subscriber Growth Markets And Therefore Become A Force To Be Reckoned With?


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Every man and his dog in the mobile and music content sector have been shouting about the iPhone and its ground breaking user interface. I will gladly concur that the iPhone has raised the bar in terms of ease of use interface and integration of a music player into a mobile phone. But does this mean it is destined for world domination as some commentators state? Even with the soon to be released 3G version upon our doorstep I believe the answer is a firm NO!

There are simply too many barriers in the current mobile marketplace for the iPhone to drive significant penetration levels in the short to medium term. Lets get behind the glossy shine of the iPhone and look at the economic factors to get a real picture of its potential to dominate the mobile phone landscape in terms of actual units being sold on a global basis.

Firstly, in most markets outside of the US, consumers are used to receiving their phone for “free” – effectively subsidised by the network operators, when tied into a monthly contract for voice and data usage. This has not been the case with the first incarnation of the iPhone; in fact it has come with a hefty premium price tag. Already I view this premium price tag as a serious disincentive for long-term growth potential.

Now lets look at the key growth areas in terms of handset subscribers. As outlined in the chart below, during 2007 90% of global mobile subscriber was gained in the “emerging markets”. The traditional markets of the west are already witnessing above 110% penetration levels and are starting to see stagnation in terms of growth. With such a high premium price tag the iPhone is less likely to be able to drive penetration levels in “emerging markets” as they are traditionally low to mid-range mobile handsets – albeit many now have significant and growing smart phone markets as well.

The “emerging markets” are rolling out 3G networks almost everyday because it is cheaper to launch a 3G network than build in-ground broadband cable infrastructure. Already in South America 36% percent of peoples first experience of the internet is via the mobile phone – expect to see this rise significantly over the next year in all “emerging markets”.

Traditional handset manufacturers and operators all agree that the “emerging markets” are where real growth lies. In these markets the mobile handset has come to the front because it is cheaper to own a mobile phone than a desktop computer. So a premium priced iPhone is unlikely to have any easy time breaking into the high subscriber growth markets.

Global mobile handset subscriber levels surpassed 3.2 billion in early 2008. Almost 1.8 billion of these handsets are MP3 capable and growing at an extremely fast rate. iPhone had targets of selling just 10 million in its first year of release – a needle in the haystack in reality. Even if apple were to bring in tiered feature levelled versions with corresponding tiered pricing – equating to lower iPhone handset prices (which in my view they will no doubt do). Would this actually dent the market shares of Nokia, Motorola and Sony Ericsson in the short to medium term? I seriously doubt it.

Yes in the United States we have seen the iPhone make a large dent into the market share of smart phone manufacturer RIM, who had dominance in the smart phone market both in the US and on a general global level. But does this necessarily mean the same will occur in the wider traditional markets and more importantly the “emerging markets” segment?

Undeniably from a user interface and design perspective the iPhone wins against any other handset hands down! However most handset manufacturers and network providers also have digital music stores, which are also integrated into their product/service offerings. So competition for a mobile handset solution integrated into a retail music offering is and has been crowded for a while. End user satisfaction is no doubt highest with the iPhone – evidenced by the 50% increase in mobile internet surfing and content consumption.

Yet will this be enough to dent the penetration levels of the current handset incumbents whose market share easily drowns out that of the iPhone. Nokia sees handset growth in emerging markets as the key to its continued market share dominance. It seems apple is still firmly focused on the over subscribed traditional markets and it remains to be seen if this is a good market to be focused on in the short to medium term. Even the folks at apple are not considering the emerging markets, they should be because yearly handset vs. PC growth is above a ratio of 4:1 and the majority of this year-on-year mobile handset growth is in these emerging markets.

Finally, I view the benefits of the iPhone twofold; firstly that it has delivered the first fully converged handset to the market place. Secondly it has built a mobile handset product, which is the envy of all handset manufacturers and has no equal in terms of functionality, user interface and usability design. Design and functionality alone will not be enough to drive market share dominance over the medium to long-term.



  • Wayne Rosso

    Wayne Rosso has worked in music and technology for decades. He has worked with such artists as Aerosmith, Bee Gees, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Public Image LTD., Beach Boys, Phillip Glass, Fleetwood Mac, Rick James, New Kids on the Block, Slash, Evanescence and scores of others.


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