Mobile phone market turns corner in 3Q

The worldwide mobile phone market saw mild sequential growth in the third quarter (3Q09), according to IDC’s Worldwide Mobile Phone Tracker. Year-on-year growth remained negative, but improved from the first half of 2009. Mobile phone shipments totaled 287.1 million units worldwide in 3Q09, down 6.0% from a year earlier, but up 5.6% from the second quarter.

“The mobile phone market is showing the first signs of improvement since the onset of the economic crisis,” says Ramon Llamas, senior research analyst with IDC’s Mobile Devices Technology and Trends team. “During the third quarter, we saw a number of channels promoting older devices at significantly lower prices. For many, this was enough to spur demand and push volumes higher. Now that we have moved into the fourth quarter, vendors are setting the stage for further gains by launching their flagship devices to meet pent-up demand.”

“Although some regions are still reeling from problems associated with the economic crisis, the third quarter served to cleanse the channel while providing the signs of stability necessary for additional improvement in the fourth quarter,” says Will Stofega, research manager of IDC’s Mobile Devices Technology and Trends team. “Despite the outlook for a slower economic recovery, we think vendors should increase R&D spending as well as engage in a broad portfolio review in order to ensure the best competitive stance as the market recovers.”

Regional Analysis
The North American market posted mixed results for 3Q09. The United States posted positive results, with converged mobile devices and prepaid handsets once again driving growth. Meanwhile, the Canadian mobile phone market declined for the third straight quarter despite double-digit converged mobile device growth. The tepid Canadian economy, shrinking traditional phone segment, and inventory clear out by the largest service providers led to the market’s weaker three-month performance.

The Latin American mobile phone market did not experience a strong recovery in 3Q09 as expected. Longer replacement cycles, anemic user demand, and decreased handset subsidies in select countries all negatively impacted shipment volumes during the quarter. Challenges are expected still as Mexico, one of the key countries in Latin America, will experience a ‘perfect storm’ of tax increases for telco services, personal taxes, and value-added taxes, which will all negatively impact handset sales.

The Western European market showed strong signs of recovery. For the first time this year, both traditional mobile phone and converged mobile device shipments increased year over year as well as sequentially. The price erosion from converged mobile devices and low-end handsets contributed to this vitality along with the new feature phones from LG and Samsung targeting mid-tier segments. In CEMA, the market continued to recover from the previous three months but was still depressed in comparison with a year ago. Nokia lost ground in converged mobile devices while LG gained on rivals with double-digit growth as total market volumes continued to decline.

The third quarter was a weaker than anticipated in Asia/Pacific, with total shipments down slightly from a year ago. Key emerging markets, including China, India, and Indonesia, all posted slight declines, signaling that recovery may take longer than expected. Still, demand for converged mobile devices was strong, posting double-digit increases year over year.

Top Five Mobile Phone Vendors
Nokia experienced continued pressure during 3Q09 in its Devices and Services group. The company reported a 20% decrease in revenue, ASP decline, and a shortage of components across its product portfolio. Even its tight hold on the converged mobile device category was loosened as the company cited a market share decrease from 41% to an estimated 35%. This did not keep Nokia from enhancing its services arm, acquiring cellity, Doplr, and assets from Plum Ventures.

Samsung reached a new record by shipping more than 60 million units in a single quarter. This puts the company well within reach of achieving its goal of shipping 200 million units in 2009. Driving growth was a combination of touchscreen-enabled and QWERTY messaging devices going into developed markets as well as key models within emerging markets. Looking to 4Q09, Samsung is poised to launch strategic converged mobile devices running on Android and Linux.

LG Electronics breached the 30 million unit mark for the first time in its history. Nearly half of those units sold for less than $100, making them handsome purchases for carriers. Still, the company was vulnerable in Korea and North America. Moreover, the lack of converged mobile devices and handsets for prepaid services prevented LG from capitalizing on growth opportunities in these segments. LG expects to launch Android and Windows converged mobile devices in 4Q09, while boosting its profile in India and China, improving its competitive position in the near term.

Sony Ericsson marked Hideki Komiyama’s final quarter as president of the company. During his tenure, Sony Ericsson realized improved operational efficiencies and cost reduction to increase profitability. However, the lack of entry-level devices during the economic recession left the company vulnerable as its competitors were able to keep up with shifting demand. That trend appears to continue as a list of mid-range and high-end devices are set to launch in 4Q09 and Bert Nordberg, head of Ericsson Silicon Valley, assumes Komiyama’s position.

Motorola slipped to fifth place, but in the process the company reported progress in its restructuring campaign. In addition to reducing its operating losses for the second consecutive quarter, Motorola announced its much anticipated Android-powered converged mobile device, the CLIQ/DEXT, as well as its new DROID. The company announced that it would shift its resources towards converged mobile devices and away from traditional mobile phones in 2010, a move the company hopes will improve gross margins and reduce operating losses.