Global smartphone shipments grew 4.3 percent in the first quarter, according to a new IDC report, but smartphone upgrade rates at two of the nation’s largest carriers were down year over year in the same period. What gives?
IDC’s report indicates smartphone shipment growth exceeded the firm’s expectations, hitting a total of 347.4 million units in the first three months of the year. According to Ryan Reith, program vice president with IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers, the figure is evidence that “the smartphone industry is not dead and that growth still exists.”
But stateside, wireless giants Verizon and AT&T reported lackluster upgrade rates that were down year over year to 5.2 percent and 3.9 percent, respectively. The latter figure marked a first quarter record-low for AT&T. And even T-Mobile, which had a much better quarter than its rivals, came in with a 7 percent upgrade rate that was flat year over year.
Why the disconnect? Well, there are a few reasons.
First, AT&T CFO John Stephens pointed out the carrier’s bottom of the barrel upgrade rate was reflective of a “permanent change” in the wireless space. “I think it is a more permanent change in the environment because of the change in who pays for it,” Stephens explained. “I clearly believe it is a permanent change from where we were in the subsidy model, and I believe that the upgrade rates will be down on a permanent basis.” So that’s one element.
Another key point is in where those additional smartphone shipments are going.
IDC said that in breaking down the shipment growth figures, they found Chinese manufacturers like Huawei, Oppo, and vivo continue to be catalysts. Oppo led the charge with nearly 30 percent growth year over year, according to IDC figures, followed by vivo’s nearly 24 percent growth and Huawei’s nearly 22 percent growth. Readers will note that none of these brands are particularly popular stateside.
“Huawei sustained its dominance in China, growing nearly 22 percent as shipments climbed from 28.1 million units last year, to 34.2 million units in the first quarter of 2017,” IDC wrote. “Although Huawei announced earlier in the month that the Mate 9 has sold over 5 million units since it launched in November, here in the U.S. the device, as well as the brand, has failed to grab consumers’ attention. This U.S. attention is something they will need if they aspire to displace the two market leaders.”
So what of the U.S. crowd favorites, Apple and Samsung?
Recent data from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) placed them firmly at the top of U.S. consumers’ lists, with 38 percent and 30 percent market share for Apple and Samsung, respectively. But IDC data shows shipments for both brands remained stagnant in the first quarter at nearly 1 percent and 0 percent, respectively, though Samsung continued to lead shipment totals with 79.2 million units.
Both brands have light on the horizon: Samsung likely expecting a second quarter boost following the introduction of its Galaxy S8 flagship phone and Apple’s coming further down the line with the fall launch of its 10th anniversary iPhone. But in the first quarter, a lack of something fresh and new proved to be a drag on both shipments and carrier upgrades.
And that brings us to our last data point. Another recent piece of CIRP research found consumers responses to the modest innovations in Apple’s latest iPhone – the iPhone 7 – with a resounding “Meh,” at least by the time the first quarter rolled around. Combined, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus accounted for only 68 percent of total U.S. iPhone sales in the three-month period.
“iPhone buyers chose 7 and 7 Plus models in slightly lower proportions than the 6S and 6S Plus in the same quarter a year ago,” CIRP Partner and Co-Founder Josh Lowitz explained. “Despite upgraded features like each new flagship iPhone release, the legacy models accounted for almost a third of iPhones sold in the quarter, the highest percentage since Apple started releasing two new phones each fall in 2014.”
Another fun data point from the report: while iPhone loyalty remained strong, CIRP noted lower switching rates from Android phones. In the first quarter, only 10 percent of iPhone 7 and 7 Plus purchasers switched from an Android phone.
“Now 3-6 months after the launch of those models in September 2016, we see how the premiere iPhone models sell mostly to the installed base of iPhone owners,” Lowitz added. “The iPhone 6S and 6S Plus models have a higher percentage of Android switchers, and the entry level iPhone SE also brings in first-time smartphone buyers.”