The (Real) Smartphone Wars Have Only Just Begun

Pre-pay cell phones globally dominate 70% of the market. As Android explodes and Apple ponders an iPhone Lite, prepare yourself for the true smartphone skirmish.


As noted in an analysis by Asymco, the figures for global cell phone use show that 70% of the world relies on pre-pay cell phones and their tariffs and unsubsidized handset prices. This may come as a surprise to U.S. consumers, used to two-year contracts and handset prices that sometimes cost nothing. But it also highlights something surprising: All the battles we’ve heard about so far in the rapidly growing smartphone market are really only addressing 30% of the globe. The real war is about to begin.


Google fans like to say that Google’s won the smartphone war, and indeed more Android devices are sold than its close rival Apple. Andy Rubin, head of Android, tweeted this morning that 500,000 Android devices are now being activated each day, 200,000 more than the last time Rubin reported the about seven months ago. The activation rate is also growing at 4.4% week on week–a cumulative growth rate that’s nothing short of astonishing. Well done, Google.

It’s worth remembering, however, that relatively few Android handsets are the top-end, all-singing and dancing units like the HTC Incredible…the ones that’ll get well-supported, and upgraded to new Android OSs as they become available. Many more Android phones are like this operator-branded Optimus Stockholm from Portugal, which sports Android Froyo 2.2 and costs a tiny €99 ($140).

Remember those figures about Nokia’s collapsing market in Australia? That’s one market where Apple’s actually winning–and it’s become the nation’s biggest phone retailer of any brand, an amazing fact given that there are only two iPhone types on sale compared to an armload of different Nokia and Android handsets.

Another impressive stat from the Australian market is that 79% of new phones shipped there are smartphones. This means the featurephone’s day is done, and so is the dumbphone’s–at least down under.

And then there are all those stories about a new mid-range Apple iPhone version, the rumored iPhone “Lite” which may cost as little as $350 unsubsidized (a big step down from the iPhone 4’s current off-contract price in the U.S., starting at $649). Whatever the hardware for this rumored device ends up being (and there’s still intense debate about it all), that price would be a breakthrough for Apple, and it’s unashamedly pitched at the pre-pay market.

Yet another statistic for you to think about: 40% of European phone buyers, according to a recent survey, are planning on buying an iPhone next–twice as many as plan on buying an Android device, and this is a region where nearly half of the phones sold are on a pre-pay basis.


Do you see where we’re going with this? Nearly everything we think about the smartphone wars rests on relatively few markets, and in the case of the U.S., mostly on contracted, post-pay vendor models. As smartphone sales explode around the world, Android is certainly the most popular OS for now–it’s taking up the gap that the demise of Nokia’s Symbian-powered feature phones once occupied. But if Apple really does bring its “luxury” iPhone to a lower price, then it will target that 70% global space that we tend to forget about. Though probably not for long.

[Image: Flickr user johanl]

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