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Who needs the latest smartphones? Not as many as you might think

Gartner Device Chart

© Gartner content, TelecomTV design

  • Worldwide device shipments to grow 1.9% in 2016
  • End-user spending to decline for the first time
  • By the end of this year, 82% of mobile phones will be smartphones
  • Consumers moving towards more basic smartphones

Let’s get the shock news out of the way first – growth in spending on new devices will not last forever. I know, that is a difficult concept for many to understand, but as the age-old saying goes, “enjoy the good times while they last”. Yes, it’s true, research firm Gartner expects end-user spending (in constant US dollar terms) to decline 0.5 per cent for the first time.

But if you think we are maxed out on devices for the time being, then you’re wrong, because Gartner also predicts that worldwide combined shipments of devices (and by “devices” they mean PCs, tablets, ultramobiles and mobile phones) are expected to reach 2.4 billion units in 2016, which is a 1.9 per cent increase from 2015. So we want more devices, it’s just that we don’t want to pay as much for them.

Looking specifically at mobile phones, shipments are on pace to increase 2.6 per cent in 2016, driven by smartphone demand. By the end of 2016, Gartner believes 82 per cent of mobile phones will be smartphones, up 12 per cent from 2015.

“Constant end-user spending on mobile phones is expected to increase by 1.2 per cent in 2016, but its growth will not be strong enough for overall end-user device spend to achieve growth in 2016,” said Roberta Cozza, research director at Gartner. “We are witnessing a shift to basic phones in the smartphone market. Users are also opting to replace within the basic smartphone category without necessarily moving to high-end smartphones, especially in China and some other emerging markets.”

Ms Cozza adds that local and Chinese brands are delivering more capable basic smartphones with appealing features at a lower price, which means that there is less of a need for users to upgrade to a premium smartphone. Instead, these more advanced and attractive basic smartphones fulfil user’s needs at a lower cost.

So while the world’s media will be focused on the high-end premium flagship launches at MWC next month, the world’s consumers will be more interested in the cheaper alternatives on offer. We’ve been aware of this trend for a while now, and it has been the main reason that Microsoft has been pushing more basic smartphones rather than ultra-sophisticated high-end models. Google has also been making inroads with Android One, although Firefox failed in its attempts to produce smartphones for the masses, such is the degree of competitiveness and slim margins in this market.

The limitations of mobile phones as computing devices

What’s interesting about Gartner’s data, as can be seen on our graph above, is that the percentage value of mobile phone shipments to total device shipments is remaining constant. Now, that’s either because Gartner’s predictions are too cautious, and they are just extrapolating 2015’s numbers over the next few years (unlikely), or we have to realise that pocket-sized phones are inherently incapable of fulfilling the role of larger screen devices (whether fixed, such as PCs, or mobile, such as laptops and tablets).

Gartner is, though, predicting that the market for desktops and notebooks will continue to decline (shame they don’t separate those two categories…) but “premium ultramobile” notebooks will more than make up for this fall, resulting in the overall PC market moving from 290m units shipped in 2015 to 312m in 2018. When you add cheaper “ultramobiles” (the name Gartner gives predominately to tablets), the trend is pretty much the same, as Gartner is not predicting any sizeable growth (or decline) in this category, moving from 196m units in 2015 to 198m in 2018.

Getting back to that fairly constant ratio of mobile device to total devices, it would appear that tablets are doing nothing to close this gap, and that users are shifting from desktop PCs and traditional laptops to lighter, premium-priced and specified “ultramobiles” such as MacBook Airs and Microsoft's Windows 8 Intel x86 products. Which begs the question, where does the industry move next after ultramobiles? Is it consigned to support the tried and tested “large screen with full-sized keyboard attached by a hinge” model for the foreseeable future? Or does it need to persevere with the tablet form factor and make them far more productive and powerful? There’s a product gap there, and one which the mobile operators and device manufacturers must be anxious to fill. Connected laptops have never really taken off, and the USB dongle market is too small and, quite frankly, too much of an effort for most people. If it’s not going to be the tablet that fills this gap, then what?

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