Cliff theory of mobile business: why mobile phone companies go from top to bottom overnight

Tomi Ahonen has a really interesting post on how it is that major, top-selling phone companies -- Siemens, Motorola, Palm, Nokia, Windows Mobile, RIM -- can see their sales fall off a cliff as the whole world seems to decide, en masse, that the phones are no longer the bee's knees. Ahonen marks it up to the fast replacement-cycle with phones, the tenuous relationship with dealers, and the concentration of power among the carriers.

I think there are three factors that help create The Cliff. First, there is the replacement cycle. The average replacement cycle for mobile phones in year 2000 was 21 months. By year 2006 it was down to 18 months. Today it is 16 months (all handsets). For smartphones it is even faster, at 11.5 months. A car is replaced something like every 3 or 4 years on average. A TV set once every 7 years. A personal computer every 3 and a half years. But mobile phones are replaced every year and a half, smartphones replaced every year (on average).

So if you have a bad model car, and your sales suffers because of it, you will not lose all your loyal customers in a year or two, because many of your customers have last year's model and are happy with it, and will not even come to your car dealership until two years from now to consider the replacement model, by which time you have had plenty of time to fix the problems with your current car model.

In mobile phones we do not have that luxury. The pace is so fast. And note that the rate of the collapse due to The Cliff is actually accelerating. This also suggests the replacement cycle and The Cliff are related.

A second point is the dealerships. Some technology is kind of 'protected' from rapid market fluctiations, because it is sold by the manufacturer's own stores (like Sony flagship stores for example) or through branded dealerships (like in new car sales) or by registered partners (like many personal computers, sold through 'VARs' Value Add Resellers, who are authorized with given PC brands). In mobile phones, there used to be no branded shops (Apple changed that of course) and Nokia briefly tried its own Nokia branded flagship stores - most of them have been discontinued. So if you have branded dealers, that helps dampen the fluctuation, even if you have a bad model year of your products, the damaging effect is not as severe. Mobile phones are sold whether in operator/carrier stores, or independent handset retailers, with essentially all handset brands and many of their models on display side-by-side in the store. Note, that of current handset makers, only Apple is a little bit immunized but not completely so, as it also operates its own Apple stores.

The third point is the carrier relationship. The operator/carrier has exceptional influence in the mobile phone handset business. If the carrier/operator decides to push a given phone, it can help it succeed, yes, but that is not dramatic gains. But if the the carrier/operator community decides to punish a given brand, it rapidly dies. We heard just now from Finland (of all places) that a survey of major handset stores in the biggest cities of Finland by the commerical TV broadcaster MTV3 - found that in most handset stores (both operator stores and independent stores) - even if the consumer asked for the Nokia Lumia by name - most sales representatives would not show the Nokia Lumia to the customer, and showed Samsung Android handsets instead. This even as the stores had Lumia in stock and the biggest in-store displays were featuring Lumia.

The 'Cliff Theory' ie How Handset Makers Die, why in Mobile Phones do Companies Collapse so Rapidly (Siemens, Motorola, Palm, Nokia, Blackberry and Windows Mobile) (via Beyond the Beyond)