Apple’s Global Smartphone strategy

Image Source: Kevin Van Aelst, Apple Globe, 2009

I am reading the article by Dr. Dan Steinbock, Apple iPhone4 Success Masks Global Strategic Challenges, posted on Harvard Business Review blog.  Dr. Steinblock compares Apple and Nokia in their global presence, and states that although Apple enjoys a huge  success  in the United States for the smartphone market, Nokia has advanced in l strategical development toward a global market, especially in emerging markets. The article concludes that “Apple needs to adopt a dual business model, one for the advanced economies which enjoy high living standards but relatively slow growth, and another model for emerging economies which have relatively low living standards but enjoy high growth”, and that “global leadership requires success in the advanced economies and the emerging world.”

While I can fully respect Dr Steinbock as the Research Director of International Business at India, China and American Institute (USA) and Senior Fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China),as a highly respected expert in the field of international business and global strategy, I pause to wonder if Dr. Steinbock is an iPhone user, or is familiar with it. I am not a big fan of Apple, but I happen to use an iPhone and know about this product; I believe that I may be able to present some valid arguments to justify why a dual business model is not necessary for Apple.

First,let us conduct a side by Side comparison for Apple and Nokia according to their 2009 annual report.

It is not necessary to discuss the gap of the market capital and the stock price between Apple and Nokia. Our comparison will rather review each company’s operational key performance indicators. Apple reports two billion more in revenue than Nokia, but to clarify, the Apple data includes products beyond  Smartphones such as iPods and Mac Computers. The iPhone accounts for 30% of the total revenue. Apple’s gross profit margin for 2009 is 41% with an income before tax of 28%.  According to the analysis from iSuppli Corp, iPhone has a profit margin of almost 52% for the cheaper model. Comparatively, Nokia, a manufacturer of mobile devices, has 32% of gross profit, with only a 2.3% income before tax. Nokia’s R&D cost is high at 13% vs. only 3.1% for Apple.

From this comparison, we may conclude Apple has a business strategy of “Differentiation”. Apple enjoys a high profit margin from the well-designed high-end Smartphone. Apparently, Nokia is heading toward a different strategy to become a “cost leader” to focus on more low end products with lower margin. My speculation is further articulated by the article, Nokia to Halve Smartphone Production in 2010, Official Suicide Watch Starts Now. Nokia announced it would halve production of its Smartphones in 2010, to gear itself toward a concentration on ‘dumbphones’, or “mid to low end Smartphones.” Nokia Smartphones’ R&D also “cut down unnecessary differentiation”. While I choose not to comment on  whether Nokia is choosing the right business strategy, it seems a fair assumption that their focus on low-end Smartphones is directed toward a global focus met to face an increasing demand in emerging economies.

On the other hand, Apple, having a singular iPhone product in their Smartphone portfolio, was able to increase their market share to 16.1% in 2010 Q1, a 131.6% leap from a year ago. (Source: Apple boosts global smartphone market share big-time, holds on to No. 3 position) With the introduction of iPhone 4, I would expect to see increased market share for Apple.

It seems paramount that we should ask this question: Why is the Apple R&D cost is so low in comparison to Nokia? I believe that the answer lies hidden within Dr Steinbock’s article.  Nokia is a device manufacturer however Apple uses OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) Foxconn to produce their Smartphones. Although I do not have inside information, I believe Apple collaborates with Foxconn for product development. Utilizing the supplier’s technology and production expertise, Apple is able to focus on their core competency of product design and software program development and achieve such low R&D cost. Apple has only one model of iPhone with some variation of memory size, which is naturally easier for mass production, and allows the achievement and maintenance of lean inventory management. This results in a lower COGS (Cost of Goods Sold) and a higher gross profit margin. Nokia, on the other hand, released 13 Smartphone models in 2009, which increased not only their R&D cost, but added a level of complexity to its supply chain and increased the capital investment required to manage the vast array of models.

So when iPhone is considered a luxury product in the Smartphone market, why would they require different pricing strategies for different markets? It is my belief that it is not required.  Just as Louis Vuitton for purses or Rolex for watches, premium brands do not require different prices for different markets. This is especially true for the Chinese market, where premium brands are considered to be an indicator of personal social status. I cannot speak for the Indian market without further research, but Chinese consumers are willing to pay for premium and trendy products. Before Apple settled an exclusive sales agreement with China Unicom for the exclusive right of iPhone sales, iPhone had been sold throughout China on the black market at a premium price. Many Chinese consumers asked their friends or family in U.S. to buy unsubsidized iPhones for them to use in China. The iPhone initially failed in China, not because of the cost barrier but because of GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) compliance, thus forcing Apple to redesign the iPhone for China to meet the Chinese wireless network requirements. Even after prices were cut to 3,000 yuan ($439.46) in April by the carrier China Unicom, Chinese consumers are still paying significantly more than U.S. consumers for an iPhone without subsidy from the wireless network carrier. However, contrary to what Dr Steinbock claims in his article that Apple flopped in the Chinese market, Apple’s Chinese iPhone sales exploded and largely contributed to the growth of Apple last quarter sales, with estimated 2.1 million iPhone sold in China within 6 months.

A lot has been said, I believe I have answered the questions:

Does Apple need a global strategy? Absolutely, yes. Apple should establish and expand the distribution channels in different nations, with possible redesign to meet local market requirements. It is also crucial for Apple to work with its suppliers to meet its increased demand.

Does Apple need a dual business model for the advanced economies and emerging economies? I do not believe so. iPhone sales are disappointing in India or other emerging markets due to different consumer behavior, so be it. There is still much room for growth in the global high-end Smartphone market. Smartphone users typically replace their phones every two years as contracts expire. Apple enjoys such high profit margin from a single Smartphone model, so it is not necessary for Apple to add additional resources to develop a low-end model for those markets and dilute its premium brand image, just like we can not imagine Louis Vuittonor or Rolex producing a low end product for low-income consumers. Being a global leader does not necessitate becoming the leader of market share in quantity while struggling with profit margin. Apple is definitely a leader in the Smartphone market with their product design mission to “be sweet to customers and vicious to rivals”. I foresee that we will continue to see the growth of Apple in the Smartphone market.

One thought on “Apple’s Global Smartphone strategy

  1. “iPhone sales are disappointing in India or other emerging markets due to different consumer behavior, so be it.”

    India’s cell phone subscribers are more than the U.S. population alone. The numbers seem small as a percent of India’s population. By 2050 Chinas economy is expected to surpass the U.S. at very conservative figures. You better believe that it is vital for Apple to take on customized business models in emerging economies.

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