Smartphones key as phone vendors regroup

After a poor fourth quarter, mobile phone manufacturers turn to smartphones to save their bacon.

The fourth quarter wasn't a good one for the mobile phone manufacturers, and now they are looking to smartphones to save the day.

The Europeans fared the worst: Nokia sold 113.1 million phones during the fourth quarter -- 15 percent less than it sold a year earlier -- and Sony Ericsson sold 24.2 million units, 21 percent less than during the same period in 2007.

The Asians did a bit better: Samsung Electronics increased sales compared both to a year earlier and to the third quarter, and LG Electronics managed to do the same. In the end they sold 52.8 million and 25.7 million phones, respectively. This means that LG passed Sony Ericsson to become the third largest phone vendor in the world.

But the unit growth came at a cost. "As we suspected Samsung and LG were going to try their hardest to try to hit their sales targets, and they have done all they can to do that," said Geoff Blaber, analyst at CCS Insight.

Particularly Samsung, but also LG, were very aggressive on pricing during the fourth quarter, with significant price declines on a number of core products, according to Blaber.

"Now the result of that is, of course, that they have secured some very healthy year-on-year growth numbers in volume terms, but if you look at the margins the consequences are pretty clear. Both Samsung and LG have slipped down to sub-three percent margins," Blaber said.

Motorola will announce its fourth-quarter results on Feb. 3, but it has already provided preliminary results, saying it sold about 19 million devices

When sales from the companies are added together, it appears the mobile phone market dropped more than expected, according to Blaber.

"Our initial forecast was about minus 9 percent for Q4 year-on-year, and now we are looking at nearer minus 12 percent," he said.

That vendors now are looking to smartphones doesn't come as a surprise.

"Smartphones are going to be a real growth segment in a declining market, so that's where the profitability lies," Blaber said.

The underlying driver is demand by consumers, who have started asking for smartphones, according to Carolina Milanesi, research director at Gartner.

"We've been saying for a while that operators want smartphones, and now consumers -- although they might not know what they're actually talking about -- have started to talk about them as well. It has become a buzz word," Milanesi said.

Nokia, for example, said it will expand the definition of smartphones during 2009 by combining its Ovi services offering with new hardware, at attractive price points.

To some extent this might not seem like a massive departure from what it's already doing -- driving down the cost of smartphones, according to Blaber.

"So what Nokia is looking to do is accelerate that, and that certainly makes a lot of sense," Blaber said.

But Nokia still has an issue at the very high end of its portfolio, because the Nseries needs a fundamental makeover, according to Blaber.

A key part of the upcoming smartphone push will be phones based on the Android operating system.

"Everyone in the top five, with the exception of Nokia, is pushing Android very hard. So it's a big, big year for Android, undoubtedly," Blaber said.

At the same time, Blaber is concerned about how sustainable, for example, Sony Ericsson's platform strategy is. The company is seeking to reduce costs, which doesn't gel with the reality that supporting Android, Windows Mobile and Symbian Foundation is a very expensive and resource consuming, according to Blaber.

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