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Paying Attention to Low-End Competitors

When do we have to pay attention to low-end competitors? The cell phone operating system business gives us an indication.

There are a number of cell phone operating systems from which to choose. The major suppliers include Microsoft, Google, Apple, Nokia and Research in Motion. Google is the newest entry here, and is beginning to make waves with its free Android operating system. (See “Audio Tip #33: Strong vs. Weak Competitors” on StrategyStreet.com.)

There are two separate sets of customers for these operating systems. The first, and most important, are the carriers. The four major carriers include AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and TMobile. A secondary set of customers are the handset makers. These companies are secondary because they conform to the demands of the carriers in the U.S. These handset makers include Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson, Kyocera, Dell, HTC and Apple.

In the cell phone operating system market, Nokia is the leader with its Symbian operating system. Research In Motion, with its operating system for its BlackBerrys, is also strong. The key growth market today is the smart phone market, where Apple has 13% of the market. Apple is gaining market share, at the expense of Windows Mobile, which has managed to hold on to 9% of the market. Google’s Android operating system is on only 2% of the world-wide smart phones. So should the operating system competitors fear Google’s Android? The answer is yes, for a couple of reasons.

The first, and most important, reason is that the largest carriers, all four of them, have agreed to offer Android phones. (See “Audio Tip #29: Positive vs. Negative Volatility” on StrategyStreet.com.) Whenever the largest customers in the market agree to carry a product, that product has to be taken seriously by other competitors. The adoption of Android systems by the top four carriers argues that Android is a serious competitor.

The next reason is that most of the phone set makers have also adopted an Android operating system for some of their phones. Motorola eliminated Windows Mobile in favor of Android. HTC plans for half of its phones to run on Android this year. And Dell is using Android for its market entry. Most of the other competitors, including Samsung, LG, Kyocera and Sony Ericsson are also making Android devices. Apple will not offer an Android phone. So, the secondary customers have also spoken and affirmed that Android is serious.

Once the major customers have endorsed a low-end competitor, that competitor’s impact on the market will be pervasive. Android will not be a low-end competitor for long. Google will use its growth in the market to fund product innovations which will bring its operating system up to the standards of the better players in the market. Further, the growth of the Android system, which is free, will inevitably reduce the volume of sales or the price, and probably both, of the higher end operating systems. A low-end competitor who continues offering low prices while, at the same time, improving its product’s performance will reduce the margins of all other competitors in the industry. Its performance for price proposition will focus customers’ attention on the marginal differences that the higher end operating systems offer for their marginal prices, depressing either sales or prices. (See “Audio Tip #80: Measuring Customer Cost Savings” on StrategyStreet.com.)

Posted 12/10/09

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