Android OEMs and The Law Of Conservation Of Attractive Profits

A couple of days ago, I wrote a comment on an article on the Tech.pinions website.

The article (by Jan Dawson) was discussing how Samsung came to dominate the Android OEM market, but how it is now struggling with competition on the low-end and is also having difficulty in differentiating itself.

The comment that I wrote;

It’s very interesting that you call Samsung “exceptional”. This is because, at least in my interpretation, the trajectory of Samsung’s accent and decline is precisely what Clayton Christensen’s theories would predict.

I’ve been thinking more about what I wrote, and I think that this is such an important issue that I should put it up as a blog post. Here, I will copy my original comment and add a bit more to it.

The rise and fall of Samsung as a smartphone OEM

Jan Dawson lists the keys to Samsung’s success as the following;

  1. “On the marketing side, Samsung has vastly outspent all other Android smartphone manufacturers and become the default option for people in mature markets looking to buy a mid to high end smartphone.”
  2. “Its vertical integration has allowed it to compete very efficiently and effectively with screen and other component technology.”

Jan Dawson also outlines Samsung’s current problems;

  • Overall smartphone growth is slowing, putting pressure on Samsung’s other device categories to provide stronger growth
  • Samsung’s dominant position in Android is being assailed at the low end and in the mid market by a variety of competitors, many of them from China
  • Google is reining in Android and looking to reassert its own position and services in the smartphone market, putting pressure on Samsung and others to tone down their customizations. New flavors of Android for wearables, the car and TVs will provide even less room for customization
  • People are at any rate apparently tiring of Samsung’s customizations of Android and starting to look more seriously at smartphones which provide a stock Android experience or at least something more like it
  • Samsung’s marketing spend is starting to experience the law of diminishing returns, where each dollar of spending no longer conveys the advantage it once did. It has effectively saturated the market and can no longer derive the advantages it once did from its far superior ad spend.

I completely agree with Jan Dawson’s assessment of why Samsung was successful, and Samsung’s current predicament.

The problem is, how did Samsung transition so quickly from “huge success” to “quite problematic”.

Jan Dawson doesn’t go into explaining the transition in depth. That is what my comment tries to do by applying Christensen’s theories.

How the environment changed from favorable to hostile for Samsung

Christensen’s theories are build on the premise that continued innovation (sustaining innovation) will ultimately open-up the possibility of low-end disruption, and that it can be very difficult for some companies in some markets to counter-attack the disruptor.

Hence to understand what happened to Samsung, we should analyze how technical advances changed the competitive landscape, and allowed low-end disruptors to enter the market. That is what I tried to do in the comment;

  1. When the product is not good enough, the attractive profits flow to the integrator. This was the situation at the beginning. Samsung’s ability to integrate the hardware stack and to also put a UI (that was attractive in the sense that it more closely imitated iPhone) on top was the reason they had the best Android product.
  2. As technology improved, customized integration became less necessary. This caused modularity in the hardware stack. SoC vendors like MediaTek are prime examples of the hardware becoming more modular. Also, as Android got its act together and became less ugly, Samsung’s ability to put their UI on top became less important and even downright annoying. Hence the software vendor (Google) increased its power. In fact, integration within the software stack increased. In total, the Android value chain became modularized and Samsung’s strength as an integrator waned.
  3. Samsung tried to buck this trend by creating products that we much better than those assembled from modular parts (which is the same as Apple’s strategy). Hence they designed their own CPU and added features to their software. Unfortunately, both were unsuccessful. Neither created value that appealed to their customers.

The first item explains why Samsung rose to dominance. Samsung is very vertically integrated in hardware. It has top-level semiconductor technology, display technology, wireless technology, etc. Importantly, because Apple had to rely on Samsung for key components, Samsung learned of Apple’s iPhone plans many months before their competitors. None of their competitors had a similar advantage. This allowed Samsung to rapidly produce the best Android smartphone hardware

One thing I want to add that is rarely mentioned is that Samsung’s TouchWiz UI was well received during these early years. Before Android 4.0, the Android UI was pretty bad (Android 4.0 was a huge overhaul of the UI). Samsung’s TouchWiz imitated the iPhone UI much more closely than stock Android, and this was no doubt one of the reasons why Samsung was so successful. Hence in this context, Samsung’s ability to create a good UI skin was also a key factor in its success. As far as I can tell, yearning for a stock Andorid experience is post Android 4.0. Until then, stock Android was not “good enough”.

Going on to the second item, we start to see how technical progress changed the environment. Christensen has described how markets eventually favor modularity over integration after the products become “good enough”. As component technologies improve, it becomes less important to fine-tune the components to obtain the necessary performance. Customers are now satisfied by products that are simply assembled from “off-the-shelf” components (from SoC vendors like MediaTek for example). In many cases, even the assembly is outsourced to China. Because fine-tuning is less important, this allows low-end entrants without extensive hardware expertise to enter the market. Because the low-end entrants do not need much hardware expertise, their business models are often very different from Samsung’s. For example, Lenovo is a low-cost assembler of hardware, an operation that doesn’t require much R&D spending. Cherry Mobile, a fast growing smartphone brand in the Philippines is actually a carrier, not a hardware maker. Xiaomi, a fast growing fabless smartphone maker in China that sells mid-range phones with razor-thin margins, earns profit not through hardware sales but through service sales and reduced costs on marketing.

It is also important to note that many of the new entrants mainly have strengths in their local markets. Cherry Mobile (Philippines), Xiaomi (China), Lenovo (China), Micromax (India), Wiko (France), BQ (Spain) are some of the examples. Being local companies, they have some marketing advantages over Samsung and can better tailor their products to local preferences.

To reiterate, technical progress has allowed low-end entrants with a very different low-cost business model, to enter the smartphone market. Samsung’s integration and expertise in hardware is no longer a competitive advantage. In fact, it could even become a liability because it could make it difficult for Samsung to directly address these low-end entrants.

Technical progress has changed the initially favorable environment for Samsung into a hostile one.

Google’s increased power over OEMs

This is explained by “the law of conservation of attractive profits”, which I have described in a separate post.

It also explains why Google now has the power to reign-in Android. The negotiation power of the integrators has declined and has shifted to the OS and service vendor. Google did not have this power until the hardware stack became modular.

The law of conservation of attractive profits allows Google to have stronger influence over Samsung. However, as I described in the previous post, I tend to think that this is temporary and that the attractive profits will transition back to the OEMs who have alternative business models.

Looking into the future

One of the more interesting features of the recently announced Android “L” is the new ART runtime. This looks like it will significantly improve Android performance on low-end hardware. This will accelerate the shift in power away from Samsung and towards the low-end entrants. Combine this with the Android One reference platform, and we will likely see almost all value in low-end Android hardware sucked out. Samsung will have a very hard time competing in this market, and since their competitors are now asymmetric, it’s very hard to see how they can launch a strong counter attack. However, since most of the entrants are local, the spread of low-end entrants might be a gradual process.

On the high end, especially in markets where the cost of the smartphone is subsidized by the carrier, Samsung will continue to be the dominant Android OEM. Other Android OEMs simply cannot match Samsung in marketing and product features. Whether that is enough given the strength of iPhone is yet to be seen.

Importantly, Google’s strategy is providing absolutely zero incentive and zero profits for OEMs to innovate in hardware. With this market structure, it’s difficult to see how the low-end entrants could evolve to the point where they can overtake Samsung in the high-end, even Xiaomi or Lenovo. I don’t see this ever happening in the foreseeable future.

Actually, this could make Apple more dominant in the high-end, and Google probably won’t even care.