2014: How India’s smartphone market landscape changed
There is little doubt when the sweepstakes are tallied a few months from now and well into 2015, the new players would be seen closer to the crown. More established brands that made the folly of not innovating, and still not moving fast enough to fill the gap in their offerings are the ones that are likely to fall by the wayside in the new rankings.
It is not enough to say that Chinese brigade makes ‘cheap’ phones as many of them have graduated from making cheap iPhone clones to extremely capable, stable and well-designed smartphones that they offer at jaw-dropping prices, rightly earning the sobriquet of flagship-killers.
While in the coming year or two the churn will only increase and some of the established players like Samsung, Apple and Sony will have some nice, cool stuff up their sleeves, yet others are bound to go into the sunset even faster they can say goodbye.
Once known as computing giants, biggies like HP, Dell and even Taiwan’s Acer have tried to play the Android phablet and tablet route, but failed miserably. Writing is on the wall: some of the established computing (and even telecom) vendors will soon be out of reckoning if they continue playing the same old game without putting ear to the ground and understanding what the market really wants.
Let’s look at who has done what and stands where in the recent times and what could this mean for the future of the smartphone mart.
Apple’s a Bitten fruit:
Apple’s arrogance is unfathomable. The origin of that arrogance (as well as its wizardry), Steve Jobs, is long gone and its later products have missed the genius touch of Jobs, the wow factor. Apple aficionados (including the writer to some extent) still buy Apple’s products with a mad fervor that borders on mania, but by not innovating fast enough, by not overhauling iPhone inside out, by not having a segmented offering the Cupertino, California giant is missing out on a big cross-section of the ever expanding pie which by default goes to Android.
It may be a good tack to remain exclusivist and retain a certain premium halo to the brand, but hey who said you cannot offer premium stuff at prices closer to earth? It goes without saying that Apple still hasn’t stopped surprising us every once in a while and still leads in terms of the wow quotient. It needs to, however, stop catching up on a lot of features that Android army introduces, and lead once again. The mighty empire still has poor distribution and far poorer communications strategy and focus for a key market like India. And that may boomerang sooner than later. Remaining hoity doity can only have one result!
It has been proved by the way iPhone 5S lost its price in India. For a slagship launched at nearly 50K, it is now available for around Rs 35K within a year, a new first for Apple in India at least!
Sony in doldrums:
Extremely good design language, very nice features… yet the Japanese company faces the heat. Price, price and price. Brand arrogance that Sony still suffers from should have been a thing of the past. The earlier Sony accepts this fact, the better its chances will be in the mobile devices space. We all love Sony and its good design ethos to see it go down for poor marketing strategy or brand arrogance.
The earlier Xperia range was a crop of poorly designed and put together phones that would heat, hang and refuse to work every now and then. But Xperia Z2 onwards, the story improved and Xperia Z2 and Xperia Z3 were marvels that Sony decidedly put enough work in. But that may be too little, too late unless accompanied by aggressive pricing and bundling. If there is someone who can bundle goodies together, it is the houses of Sony and Samsung.
Samsung bleeds too:
It began with the not-so-successful debut of Galaxy S5. Here was a classical saga of how Samsung seemed to have missed the innovation bus. And the market turned ruthless within months. The result: Price of its flagship broke into pieces within months. Samsung fought back with Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy Alpha which are terrific products. However, Samsung still hasn’t shown itself any mercy by having priced features-laden Note 4 within kissing distance of 60K. The Tab S too, though a great product, suffered from a wrong pricing anomaly.
Samsung urgently needs to relook its complete pricing and segmentation strategy, and not see itself as too premium a brand. For, in the world of future technology, there won’t be mighty brands anymore unless you are a path-breaker like Apple once was in 2007. It also needs to launch standalone smartwatches and fitness bands at the earliest.
Nokia nee Microsoft needs to innovation again:
This is one company that needs all eyes on the window to the future. It has seemingly almost stopped innovation in the past one year, before and after integration with Microsoft. The last time brand Nokia created buzz was when Microsoft gobbled it. And before that when it launched the Lumia 1020 Pureview. But Microsoft Devices (ugh!) needs deeper lenses into the future and desperately needs a window to success at both top end as well as lower end.
In the top end, heavy dependence on megapixels (or lets’s say imaging) has to pave way to innovation elsewhere in the smartphone such as design and overall features). In the lower end, advent of good affordable Android phones has muddied the Windows story somewhat. Though Windows Mobile India team is working aggressively with a number of Indian handset makers, we are yet to see the oomph.
Do also remember just why did once mighty Nokia got reduced to a minnow that got sold to Microsoft. Yes, for the want of innovation! Nice, bright range of Windows-powered Lumias had briefly changed the script somewhat. But that very same ghost of complacency looms large again. Microsoft needs to address this really fast. Having similar looking/feeling handsets at different price points won’t make things better.
LG, a company that doesn’t take itself seriously:
For LG, it is a serious case of lack of belief in itself. A company that made a fabulous but battery problems-ridden Nexus 5 for Google and sold about 1.2 lakh units, one can only compare to the Indian cricket team of the yore. It never goes for the kill: won’t support advertising, marketing; won’t strategize in short! In general, extremely poor at communicating that it has a decent product portfolio across the board, smartphones being one of them, that’s LG for you. There is nothing more to write home about the Korean smartphone brand that was once known as Lucky Goldstar. Luck usually favours the brave, making them stars.
Enter the dragon: Xiaomi, Gionee, Oppo, OnePlusOne, Lenovo:
One of the reasons why 2014 was the year of the capable ‘value-for-money’ smartphones was the entry of new Chinese players in the Indian market. The likes of Xiaomi redefined the entry-level segment with feature-packed phones like the Redmi 1S and Redmi Note 4G, the latter being one of the lowest-priced 4G LTE-capable smartphones. OnePlus also brought its ‘flagship killer,’ One smartphone to India. However, the limited availability and online-only distribution model of the phones has been a dampener. The two brands also found themselves in legal trouble due to patent disputes and conflicts with local players.
The other bunch from the Orient also made some good strides. Oppo, which positions itself as a premium brand, launched Find 7, one of the best flagships of 2014. It also unveiled its thinnest phone and a phone with a motorized camera swivel. The steep and unrealistic pricing prevented Oppo from reaching the masses though. Gionee and Lenovo also came up with some interesting offerings — Gionee Elife S5.1 is among the slimmest smartphones available while Lenovo’s Vibe X2 is a well rounded smartphone that features an interesting faux-layered design. One should have little doubt that there will be an even bigger invasion in 2015 from the Chinese.
Google: Moto gains, Android One ‘pains’:
Motorola, which was owned by Google till September, is counted among the biggest winners of 2014, re-entering the Indian market after a gap of two years with a bang. Moto G changed the dynamics of the sub-Rs 15,000 segment completely, so much so that even the likes of Micromax, Karbonn and Lava had no products to compete with it. The Motorola onslaught continued with the launch of the Moto E, the first decent Android smartphone under Rs 7,000.
Google’s other major offering, Android One smartphones, could not make a similar impact though these did redefine the price point in the entry-level segment. Though Google roped in Indian brands like Micromax, Intex and Spice, and made the Android One smartphones available online as well as offline, it failed to crack the market due to the likes of Moto E and Xiaomi Redmi 1S. As it turned out, what was perceived to be a gamechanger ended up being just an also-ran. Nevertheless, the Android One smartphones gave the Indian buyers capable smartphones with stock Android software at a budget.
Rise of the Indian soap opera:
Indian smartphone mart now has more claimants than just Micromax that have captured some popular imagination in the budget-level segment. Lava and Xolo combine, Karbonn and Spice seem to have come of age not only with decent offerings, but are also able to compete somewhat with the Chinese with a better promise of after sales service. But they need to crack a lot more: e-tailing being one of them. For another, hardly any of them is doing really serious R&D in terms of customization and localization, leave alone manufacturing locally.
Frequent launches under different model names and with nearly same features and price points indicates only one thing – the Shenzhen shoppers introduce newer models each time only because the suppliers run out of old lots.
Taiwan saga: HTC and Asus:
With their eyes on the Indian smartphone market, the Taiwanese players were not too far behind their Chinese counterparts. HTC, about to be written off in India, did make a comeback of sorts with the launch of the well-received but over-priced One (M8), which helped it score a profit globally after a few quarters in the red. HTC, of course, lost its way by the second half of the year with the launch of the ridiculous GoPro-like RE Camera and the selfie-focussed HTC One M8 Eye, which were rejected by the market.
Asus, on the other hand, played a safer game and relied on good products without the fluff. Smartphones like Zenfone 4, 5 and 6 focussed on customer requirements such as display quality, performance and camera at aggressive prices that made even the Chinese players sit up and take notice.
Also rans: BlackBerry, Acer, HP, Dell, Lenovo, Huawei, ZTE:
Huawei and Lenovo will be counted as the two companies which saw where the smartphone market was shifting and adapted to it almost immediately. Smartphones like Huawei and Lenovo will be counted as the two companies which saw where the smartphone market was shifting and adapted to it almost immediately. Smartphones like Huawei’s Honor 6 and 3C and Lenovo’s Vibe X2 and Z2 Pro were excellent for the price, offering features no other brand could offer. However, neither was able to make much of a dent in the Indian smartphone market.
BlackBerry’s star continued to dip in 2014, with not many warming up to its products, like the oddly-designed Passport and the overpriced Z3. Dell and HP also tried to hook buyers with their budget tablets, but not many came their way even though there were not many alternatives in the market. Surprisingly, the likes of Taiwan’s Acer and China’s ZTE were practically absent from the Indian market in the year that has seen a massive landscape shift.
(With inputs from Ravi Sharma & Anupam Saxena)