Global smartphone brands face mass extinction

Hong Kong, December 26

Smartphone brands are heading for extinction in 2016.

The industry’s growth rate dipped below 10 per cent this year. Apple and Samsung’s high-end phones are taking most of the spoils, while upstarts like China’s Xiaomi are picking up first-time buyers. Loss-making brands from HTC to Sony may be forced to conclude the game is over.

The smartphone industry grew at a single-digit rate this year for the first time, according to data from IDC. Just two years ago, the industry was expanding at a breakneck 40 per cent. Demand from China — the world’s largest handset market and once the driver of growth — will be flat this year.

The slowdown suggests two things. First, the market is saturated: existing smartphone owners outnumber first-time buyers. The People’s Republic of China, which accounts for 30 per cent of global shipments, has joined North America and Western Europe to become a replacement market where sales are driven by upgrades.

That’s good news for premium handset makers like Apple and Samsung. The $600 billion iPhone maker grabbed a staggering 94 per cent of the industry’s profits in the three months to September, analysts at Canaccord Genuity reckon. Samsung remains the only big Android phone maker that is profitable.

Second, first-time buyers in emerging markets will power growth. Handset shipments in the Middle East and Africa rose 50 per cent year on year in 2015, IDC estimates. Chinese groups Xiaomi and Huawei — which catapulted to third place in shipments this year — have just entered those markets selling budget phones. Fierce battles are also playing out in India, where locals Micromax and Intex are fighting Samsung.

Those without Apple-level margins or Huawei’s scale may not survive. The loss-making HTC is already on life support as its $1.3 billion cash pile dwindles. The launch of the group’s $500 iPhone rival is unlikely to be a turning point: analysts expect HTC’s market share for next year to stay flat at around one per cent.

Ailing Japanese conglomerates, from Sony to Kyocera, will be under pressure to shut unprofitable mobile units. Even smartphone pioneer BlackBerry may be forced to give up on hardware if sales of its latest model disappoint.

The year 2016 may be the beginning of the end for many.