Apple and the Smartphone Market

The bar is high for Apple’s September 9th event. Beside an expensive ‘iWatch’, Apple is rumored to announce the new iPhone 6 and iOS 8. Are these new growth avenues or the company already losing its shining star? Will it redefine the smartphone or merely be a follower and come up with a larger screen, something that Samsung has pioneered years ago? Or maybe the mobile wallet’s technology rumored to be in the iPhone 6 could be the big winner… With Samsung as a serious opponent, a rumored Nexus 6 for February 2015, and Google’s Android Silver promising a more unified experience in the high-end market, or the Chinese dominating the low-end market, will Apple be able to keep its market share and premium prices?


The Smartphone Market

The smartphone industry is one of the largest and fastest growing in the consumer electronics sector. It is currently dominated by the iPhone and Android-based smartphones, with BlackBerry and Windows Phone lagging behind. Apple and Samsung increasingly dominate the hardware side of the industry, whereas Google (Android) and Apple (iOS) are dominating the software side. Apple’s software runs exclusively on Apple’s products whereas Android is adopted by many manufacturers (Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola Mobility (once owned by Google), ZTE, Xiaomi, Huawei, Micromax, etc.). The Android-based manufacturers thus evolve in a particularly competitive segment, as the Android platform is rather standard and less differentiated than iOS. Principal competitive factors in the smartphones segment include price, product features, relative price/performance, product quality and reliability, design innovation, a strong third-party software and peripherals ecosystem, marketing and distribution capabilities, service and support, and corporate reputation. The number of smartphones in use worldwide surpassed the 1 billion unit mark for the first time in the third quarter of 2012 [1]. In 2012, according to comScore [2], 61.5% of U.S. smartphone buyers were choosing various Android-based devices, while 25.2% were buying Apple’s iPhone. Yet, most of the world does not own a smartphone and there is still huge growth potential, mostly in emerging markets. But competition is getting stronger…

The iPhone 5 has managed to sell a record of 5 million units in its opening week-end (iPhone 4, 1.7 million units and iPhone 4S, 4 million units) [3]. Competition has intensified in the smartphone category (Table 3). Shipments of Samsung’s Galaxy S3 have outpaced the iPhone 4S in recent quarters [4], and Strategy Analytics predict that the Samsung smartphones sales will continue to outpace the iPhone in 2013 [5]. A hardware comparison between the Galaxy S4 and the iPhone 5 is provided in Table 4. It is clear from this analysis that the iPhone 5 is lagging behind in terms of hardware compared to the Galaxy S4. But, when it comes to connecting with consumers, technology cannot exist merely for technology’s sake. It must be built to deliver optimal value for the customer. Customers (at least most of them) favor practical value and not necessarily the most technologically-advanced offering. Apple is not in the race to produce a phone with the best specs. It is in the race to create the phone that is the most advanced and beneficial when it comes to actually delivering what users want. Apple’s refusal to follow Samsung in the race for flashy features, but providing a great and consistent user experience, could potentially be seen as reverse positioning [6]. Samsung, however, is closing off the coolness gap with Apple [7]. Their marketing communications are aggressive and they are after Apple’s market share. Their smartphones are particularly popular amongst teenagers, and since users are loyal to a brand and ecosystem, Apple runs the risk that this generation will also upgrade to Samsung products. Apple thus needs to aggressively target them with the iPhone.

With lesser software differentiation and hardware features converging, device manufacturers are now competing on scale and price. When the smartphone industry was born, there were lots of new innovations on the software and hardware fronts but now that the industry has matured, improvements are incremental and consumers don’t need to change their smartphones every six months. Companies are also not interested to change and revolutionize their products since consumers might be lost if changes are too drastic. With short product cycles, few innovations between them, and higher device prices, consumers are often tempted to wait 2 or 3 products generations before upgrading. Players need to constantly challenge themselves and continue to be innovators.

The competitive intensity in the industry is likely to increase even more with possible threats of new entrants coming from Amazon and Facebook, companies with deep pockets and proven track records, and low cost Chinese manufacturers with strong offerings [8]. Competitors have aggressively cut prices and lowered their product margins to gain or maintain market share. Amazon was fairly successful with its Kindle tablet and it remains to be seen if they can achieve the same level of success in the smartphones segment. Their price point is lower than the iPhone and some consumers, more sensible to price (especially the youth demographics and emerging markets), might be tempted by their value proposition.

The Apple iPhone

The iPhone was first released in July 2007 and more than 250 million units were sold to date. At the time, the mobile handsets market was new territory for them. The iPhone was the first smartphone to offer a large display with touch screen technology. It has been enjoying strong consumer loyalty. A recent AYTM Research Report [9] (sample size of 600 U.S. respondents) reports that although 40% of U.S. respondents owned an Android phone versus 23% for an iPhone, current Android owners are 2.4 times more likely to switch to an iPhone than vice versa. 87% of current iPhone owners are going to buy an iPhone in the next 6 months (9% are going to switch for Android) and 73% of current Android owners are going to buy an Android phone in the next 6 months (22% are going to switch to an iPhone). Interestingly, this research also reports that prospective Android buyer’s sense of being a leader rather than a follower is greater than 1.5 times that of iPhone buyers.

With the iPhone, Apple managed to create huge buzz marketing before the product launch and the iPhone was a highly anticipated product, ultimately generating strong sales. In the smartphone category, it has been able to deliver consistent sales and profit growth with premium pricing while some competitors struggled, thanks in a large part to its superior branding strategy. This branding strategy has a strong emotional component. Its brand personality is about empowerment through technology, daring to dream, creativeness, passion, and innovation. Apple’s brand associations are extremely strong: cool, design, hip, ease of use, and technologically superior. These are built upon engaging product experience through intuitive and superb user interface. Apple has a vivid cult following, hard-core brand ambassadors and early adopters. Customers often line up at stores when new products are released [10]. With its values and associations, the brand provides a strong sense of community.

The iPod also played a crucial role to build the iPhone brand personality. Apple’s computer products had always been marginal (in terms of sales) and niche products before the advent of the mass market iPod. Apple used the iPod to reach mainstream consumers, to reinforce brand personality, and to forge a strong brand image in the minds of previously unreached segments. The iPhone, which was basically an iPod with cellular telephone and GPS capabilities, benefitted greatly from the iPod halo effect.

One key success factors is that the Apple user experience across all devices is harmonised, synchronised, and integrated via iCloud. Apple has a complete ecosystem that other manufacturers simply don’t have. The fact that it controls the iPhone iOS operating system (in opposition to other manufacturers using 3rd party software such as Android, Windows, or Linux) allows it to reach this level of coherence and complete control over the brand experience. Only BlackBerry has such coherence but the company has been struggling for a while. Apple had a single product strategy (one iPhone for all segments) instead of having different models for different segments, like most other brands, and it has utilized mass marketing strategies geared towards a vast potential clientele.

Apple also had a superior marketing communication strategy over the years. Initially it focused on product features (touchscreen, possibility to surf on the internet, GPS device, available apps, etc.). One example is the 2007 ‘Touching is Believing’ campaign (Figure 5), cunningly derived from the expression ‘Seeing is Believing’, that demonstrated a functional product capability (touchscreen), while at the same time playing with emotional and religious connotations (playing off the ‘God Phone’ nickname that some had use to refer to the iPhone, the notion that the phone is taking us out of the darkness that we were in prior to its advent, and the finger touching the iPhone is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel fresco [11]).

The iPhone combines many functions into one product (PDA, phone, music player, game console, GPS device, digital camera, etc.), although most smartphones nowadays have converged on the hardware capabilities that they provide. Apple can differentiate itself on the software front, and it has over one million ‘apps’ on the Apple App Store that extend the capabilities of the product. With the iPhone 5 it introduced the voice enabled personal assistant Siri that redefined the user experience and level of personalization. After touch, voice has huge potential as a user interface. Also, it is the only smartphone manufacturer that has its own brick and mortar stores, allowing it to leverage a strong and savvy sales force that can demonstrate product features in store. Its salespersons provide a high-quality buying experience and can convey the value of its products and services, greatly enhancing Apple’s ability to attract and retain customers. The stores have a no pressure environment where the customers can get practical help using the computers or any Apple product. The overall feeling is one of inclusiveness by a community that really understands what good technology should look and feel like, and how it should fit into people’s lives.

So far, Apple has managed a great iPhone lifecycle management through successful new models releases at regular intervals (Figure 4). This has allowed it to keep consumers on their toes, to create buzz each time a new model is announced, and to increase sales with every new product launch (Figure 4). However, with such short product cycles and only incremental improvements between models, it needs to be cautious in order to avoid consumer fatigue.

Apple has a strong and increasing corporate presence. With the downfall of BlackBerry and its postponement of BB10, the iPhone has managed to strengthen its position in the lucrative corporate market segment. Tim Cook recently revealed that 93% of Fortune 500 companies are using or testing the iPhone [12].

What Does the Future Holds for Apple in the Smartphones Market?

Some of the issues facing Apple and the iPhone are the loss of its founder Steve Jobs, the ‘coolness’ reduction gap with other smartphones, the loss of market share in the young demographics segment, the price war currently abating, the maturing of the industry and the shift of growth towards emerging markets, the need to constantly innovate and release breakthrough products, the mass market adoption of the iPhone and its brand impacts, and the quality required to be a premium brand.

Apple’s strategy and mission is, and has always been, to bring the best user experience to its customers through innovative hardware and software. Its complete control over the product ecosystem allows it to provide an iPhone with superior ease-of-use, seamless integration, and innovative design. To remain competitive and stimulate customer demand, it must successfully manage frequent product introductions and transitions.

Steve Job was an integral part of Apple and part of its brand image. He was an acute brand marketer and part of the brand story. It will be hard for Tim Cook to exert such great leadership, innovation, vision, and brand strategy. Mr. Cook, seen more as a manager than a visionary, does not have the charisma or the innovativeness of Steve Jobs. Could it do something flashy like to recruit Steve Wozniak? He is an original Apple co-founder and an important actor of its ‘starting off in the garage’ brand story, to be the # 2 at Apple and its main spokesperson, while Mr. Cook focuses on the management and operations side of the business. Steve Jobs shoes are impossible to fill, but ‘Woz’ is the next best thing for Apple’s brand image of innovation and technology leader.

Could it acquire and integrate BlackBerry? This would show leadership in the business segment. BlackBerry’s valuation looks attractive for a takeover. It possesses strong intellectual property assets and experience in the corporate segment. Its brand is in fact synonymous with business. The Apple brand is not readily associated with business, and a BlackBerry acquisition would strengthen Apple’s presence in the business and corporate markets. Some consumers, especially the content producers (in opposition to the mass market content consumers) of the business segment, still want a smartphone with a physical keyboard rather than or in addition to a touch screen. BlackBerry’s keyboard and predictive text technology could be a valued asset that would integrate well with Apple’s focus on great user interfaces.

Apple also needs to closely monitor the rise of smartphone viruses and malwares. Corporate adoption is essential for growth. Apple needs to continue to make sure that the iPhone is a secure and reliable device that can be used in the corporate environment. Data protection and integrity are also vital in a world where sensitive corporate information might reside on employees’ phones. Security is again of the utmost importance in order to develop a thriving mobile payment business model. An acquisition of BlackBerry, with its secure and encryption capabilities, could again strengthen its position in the lucrative corporate market.

Could Apple demonstrate more leadership in the youth and emerging markets segments? This is where its future growth lies. Samsung is currently winning the battle in those segments and Apple runs the risk to see its market share erode further if it stands idle. It thus needs to aggressively target these segments with the iPhone. Here, marketing research and targeted marketing communications will play a crucial role. There are significant brand erosion risks in creating a lower price point iPhone (iPhone mini). Also, such a device could cannibalize iPhone sales, as what happened with the iPad mini and the iPad [13]. The iPad mini is more popular than the standard iPad, and unfortunately, its margins are also lower. Thus, I believe that Apple should not create a filtered down, cheaper iPhone, but should find other means to reach the targeted segments.

How can Apple make sure that it preserves its fragile equilibrium between leadership and mass market positions? Brand erosion can be the next step following mass market adoption. Apple is now appealing to cool teenagers, soccer moms, businessmen, grand-parents, hipsters and everyone else… It has managed the difficult feat of being an anti-establishment product yet being commercially successful. To preserve its position it needs to continue to introduce disruptive technologies, to focus on its early adopters and brand evangelists, and to make sure that the iPhone is still relevant to them.

With its premium or high-end positioning, Apple also needs to focus on quality control and avoid potentially costly missteps, like the ‘map issue’ [14], the ‘tracking saga’ [15], the infamous ‘death grip’ [16], the labor issues of contractors [17], or complaints about imperfections in the iPhone 5’s aluminium surface [18]. The recent possible iCloud hack has made customers wonder about the security of their personal data. Additional emphasis needs to be set on processes and the whole supply chain in the context of short product cycles. Apple needs to remain synonymous with quality in order to commend premium prices. No corners can be cut.

Will Apple continue to innovate? Apple is innovation. As competitors introduce smartphones with similar features and lower price points, only constant innovation and intangible assets like branding will allow Apple to command premium prices for its iPhone. It needs to innovate perpetually in order to preserve its brand reputation and in order to generate sales growth similar to those seen since the iPhone’s inception. Simple incremental product additions can be detrimental to the brand in the longer term. Innovation was a key factor in building its strong brand allegiance and personality. Apple needs to be revolutionary, not evolutionary. It needs to be a trend setter, not a trend follower. Apple made the smartphone. The 2014 iPhone needs to do much more than the 2013 iPhone. One potential area for innovation is mobile payment (m-payment). Gartner predicts that in 2016 there will be 448 million m-payment users, in a market worth $617 billion. Apple could develop an embedded mobile payment technology for the iPhone, partnering with a global corporation like Visa, Master Card, or PayPal. I believe that the first mover in this field will gain a very strong market share and that subsequent barriers to entry will be high once a specific technology becomes the de facto standard. With the Internet of Things almost upon us, the iPhone could become a device your life revolves around: it could be your car keys, your wallet, your ID, your monitor for your parking meter, or your glucometer if you happen to need one (actually, it already is ! [19]).

So, what is the future of Apple in the smartphones market? I don’t know, but I am eager to find out, like many of you!


Strengths Impact Weaknesses Impact
Engaging product experience through intuitive and superb user interface. Rapid adoption. Vast pool of potential users. Generate emotional brand attachment and loyalty. The iPhone is expensive, although the cost can be subsidized by network carriers. Can slow adoption and market penetration, especially in emerging markets.
The iPhone cost can be subsidized by network carriers. Mitigates the expensive iPhone cost weakness. Loss of Apple’s founder and brand image, Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs was an intrinsic part of Apple, its vision, and innovation culture. It is not clear what will be the consequences of his death on brand equity.
Harmonised, synchronised, and integrated user experience across all devices. iCloud also allows to easily and seamlessly share and synchronise content between all Apple devices. Halo effect between products. Increase number of devices per user. Generate emotional brand attachment and loyalty. Uniform brand experience. Recent quality issues and missteps (iPhone maps, lack of Flash, batteries, etc.) may affect brand image. Not much room for missteps. Eventually the brand image can suffer.
Has cult following, hard-core brand ambassadors and early adopters. Sense of community. Strong brand apostles and early adopters help with mass adoption. Closed and proprietary operating system No 3rd party adoption, possibly slower growth and market penetration.
Strong brand personality and associations (lifestyle, cool, hip, design, ease of use, technologically superior, innovation, etc.). Went from number 17 to number 8 in the Best Global Brands ranking 2011 report [20]. Allows premium pricing.

Strong halo effect from parent brand and between products.

Dependency on external suppliers (some other brands make all their components). Increases components supply risks. Some issues related to suppliers can affect the brand image (e.g. Foxconn).
Over one million of ‘apps’ on the Apple App Store, and growing. Best support for external application developers. Value-added and increase appeal of iPhone to consumers. Generates additional revenues. Software developed for the iPhone can run on all Apple’s devices. Lack of smartphones at different price points, targeted at different segments (single product family versus Samsung’s range of models). Smaller potential market. Allows Samsung and other brands to target and thrive in those markets.
Closed and proprietary operating system Coherence and complete control over the brand experience. Does not have to pay external company for OS.
Fluid and controlled integration from device to content with iTunes. Huge cash cow. Consumer is captive although satisfied by the ease of content consumption.
Apple has its online stores along with brick and mortar stores in select high end markets. Efficient distribution. Direct sales without intermediaries. Control of image and sales force. Possibility for consumers to test products in store.
Extensive list of trademarks and patents. Maintain technological advantage.
Great product lifecycle management through successful new product models releases at regular intervals (Figure 4). Keep consumers on their toes, create buzz each time a new model is announced, increased sales with every new product launch (Figure 4).
Voice enabled personal assistant Siri. Redefines the user experience and level of personalization. After touch, voice has huge potential as a user interface.
Strong and increasing corporate presence. 93% of Fortune 500 companies are using or testing the iPhone [12]. Product and brand validation. Morph customer experience and brand preference from one product category to another.
The iPhone combines many functions into one product (PDA, phone, music player, game console, GPS device, digital camera, etc.). Most other products now offer the same functionalities however. Increase value. Compete and attract new customers from other products segments.

Table 1. Strengths and weaknesses.

Opportunities Impact Threats Impact
Global smartphone penetration rates in 40-70% range for industrialized countries and much lower for emerging markets (Figure 3). Still room to grow sales and revenues in mature markets, increasing opportunities in emerging markets as they gain purchasing power. Losing ground to Android-based smartphones. Loss of market share and profitability.
Mobile payments. Gartner predicts that in 2016 there will be 448 million m-payment users, in a market worth $617 billion. We believe that the first mover in this field will gain a very strong market share and that subsequent barriers of entry will be high. Threats of new entrants (Amazon, Facebook, Huawei, etc.). Has to compete on price. Loss of market share and profitability.
Mobile commerce (m-commerce) will reach US$119 billion in 2015 [21]. Apple will continue to benefit with its iTunes and Apple Store. Rise of iOS viruses and malwares. If not addressed this could hurt brand image and adoption, especially for corporate use.
Communication networks increasing in bandwidth. More data intensive media consumption (TV, movies) with increased advertisement revenues. Not enough differentiation / improvements between product versions and release cycles too short [22]. Consumers become somewhat jaded. Sales soften. Possible loss of market share.
Opportunities in the business / corporate segment with the decline of BlackBerry. Increased adoption, sales, and revenues. Erosion of points of differences as competition catches up. Possible brand erosion. Need to rely more on intangible brand strengths.
Maturation of industry in developed markets (replacement purchases). Shift towards emerging markets. Intensification of competition. Competition on price and costs.

Table 2. Opportunities and threats.

Intensity of Existing Rivalry – High
Strong industry growth

Large industry size

Short product cycles

Price and features wars

Low exit barriers

Bargaining Power of Suppliers – Low
Large number of input substitutes

High level of competition between suppliers

Inputs are OEM, unbranded and undifferentiated

Focus is on volume

Threat of Substitutes – Medium / High
High switching costs

Short product cycles / temporary market leaders

Bargaining Power of Customers – Medium / High
Large number of customers

Many alternatives

Product is important in the lives of consumers

Low dependency on distributors.

Threat of New Competitors – Medium
High capital requirements and investments

Strong distribution network required

Strong brands are required

Advanced technologies, R&D, patents, are required

Economies of scale required in order to compete

High barriers of entry

Table 3. Porter Five Forces for the smartphone industry.


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