Mass Market Smartphone – The Five Cent Cigar

Thomas Marshall, U.S. vice-president to Woodrow Wilson, once said “What this country needs is a really good five cent cigar”.  Now, as then, the world is facing a range of economic woes.  And like Marshall’s much-desired stogie, a mass-market smartphone would suit the needs of budget-strapped consumers, and also stimulate business for device manufacturers (OEMs), mobile network operators (MNOs), developers and independent software vendors (ISVs)

The mobile device market has traditionally been highly stratified (at least as described by industry pundits).  Pricey smart phones on top, more accessible feature phones in the middle, and entry-level devices for for the masses.  Increasing functionality at incrementally lower retail prices — cameras, texting, web, email — is blurring boundaries among tiers, leaving distinctions that emphasize software and price:

Tier OS Focus Applications Chipset Price
Smart Phone Android, Linux, RIM OS, Symbian, WinMo Applications Pre-load and open Post-load from app stores ARM Cortex and ARM11 >$150
Feature Phone BREW, Linux, Series40 Multiple Functions Pre-load, some Post-load ARM9 $50-$150
Entry Level Low-level RTOS (Nucleus, OSE, etc.) Voice and Texting Preload only ARM7 / ARM9 <$50

Some explanation

  • Pre-load Software includes OS, middleware and basic applications built into handsets at the factory; Post-load comprises software installed in-channel and by end-users
  • Pricing will vary by region and by plan, especially for regions favoring MNO subsidies to operators
  • Smartphone OEMs typically deploy highly integrated chipsets with dedicated silicon to run applications, multimedia and radio baseband; cheaper devices rely on a single CPU to handle all types of processing

Boundaries among the three tiers are further degraded by product life-cycles, especially from top-tier OEMs:  last season’s smartphone is often repositioned as this season’s featurephone, in terms of functionality, but especially in price:  in the U.S., after introducing the iPhone 3GS, Apple knocked down the price of the iPhone 3G to under $100; Cupertino recently announced the same shift with the iPhone 4 and the 3GS.

Born to be Cheap

The vision for a mass-market smartphone is not one of relegating older kit to the bargain basement.  Instead, these devices are spec’d and built to deliver a smartphone experience at a featurephone price.  While initially emanating from less well-known Asian OEMs, top tier handset manufacturers also investing in mass-market smartphones as well.

What is motivating this paradigm shift?  Isn’t the mobile market complicated enough, already?

The desire for a mass market smartphone actually is shared by all participants in the mobile/wireless ecosystem, with shared benefit. Basically, it all comes down to volume:

  • OEMs: increase model/product line volumes and/or margins at a given price point
  • MNOs: drive data traffic volume (more subscribers, not more data) and services revenues, sustaining ARPUs; reduce or remove the need for subsidies for smartphones with high wholesale prices (a $99 iPhone still lists a unsubsidized $600+ MSRP)
  • ISVs and Developers: provide (even larger) markets for mobile applications through higher application-capable handset volumes
  • End-users: give more consumers in more markets a taste of the smartphone experience at a lower cost of entry

The Path to Mass-Market

A friend of mine refers to the present time as “the decade of cheap”.  A mass-market smartphone would certainly fit his threadbare vision of a Walmart-style, made-in-China mobile marketplace.  However, for a mass-market smartphone to succeed, it truly must deliver a smartphone quality experience.

There are two non-exclusive parallel paths to building mass-market smartphones, focusing on hardware and on software.

Hardware: to date, most OEMs have focused cost-cutting efforts on existing hardware bills-of-material (BoMs).  Without really changing how smartphones are built, they seek to scrimp and save on individual components:  cheaper displays, less hefty batteries, end-of-life chipsets, etc.  This kind of thousand-cuts incremental approach can work for an individual device, but the exercise must be repeated with each new device as market conditions change.

Software: smartphones are defined by the software they run more than the hardware that runs them, so attacking an increasingly pricey software BoM should yield results, right? To start with, OEMs large and small are shifting to open source applications OSes, especially Android and Linux (and driving down the price of WindowsMobile and pushing Symbian to become open source).  But the same logic applies to pricier, full-bore smartphones, and with an increasingly open source software stack, there are even few opportunities to cut BoM line item costs.

The key, then, to building a mass-market smartphone, lies not in hardware nor in software, but in optimizing the two together — getting smartphone software to run on significantly more modest hardware platforms. This exercise involves

  • consolidating separate application and baseband chipsets into mainstream ARM9 CPUs
  • porting baseband and multimedia stacks from legacy DSPs and dedicated ARM chips onto applications processors

and yields significant BoM savings from integrating cheaper CPUs, consolidating previously dedicated DRAM and flash, broadening the choice of available displays and batteries, simplifying circuit board design and testing, and many other areas.  Such consolidation can also enhance battery life and yield surprising performance gains, especially for cross-stack operations like networking.

Deus ex Machina?

Sounds easy, no?  So why isn’t the market flooded with cheap and richly functional devices?  The main impediments come from investments required for consolidation and integration.  Porting (legacy) software takes time and introduces new headaches, and chipset vendors of course would rather fill sockets with new, higher-margin silicon than seek new designs for existing chips.

A different, perhaps radical approach that I personally favor is to use virtualization.  Targeting virtual CPUs instead of shoe-horning code into a single physical processor saves time and money otherwise spent on porting, (re)integrating, re-certifying, etc.  My friend at Steve Subar of OK Labs talks about how to leverage virtualization for this purpose in a recent blog, and I myself looked at the BoM impact in a related Linux Pundit tear down white paper.

Smokin’ Smartphones

Americans at the turn of the last century may never have gotten a really good five cent cigar, but consumers will soon enjoy mass-market smartphones.   Recent announcements of mass-market smartphone chipsets by Qualcomm (MSM7225), Marvell (Pantheon 9xx) and other suppliers, and of actual handsets by HTC, Motorola, Samsung et al. are only the beginning of a trend that will encompass handset OEMs of all stripes and energize the rest of the mobile-wireless ecosystem.

Tell me what you think.  Would you buy a mass-market smartphone for yourself, for your family, for mobile workers at your company?  Will the ecosystem embrace this new class of device, or continue with business as usual?

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    • Karim Yaghmour
    • June 24th, 2010

    Where do tablets fit in here? From what I can see all the players seem to have tablets on their roadmap. So maybe the game isn’t about the 5 cent cigar, but whether you’ll buy the occasional Cohiba. IOW, everyone gets a really cool/loaded smartphone, but the cool guy also buy themselves its companion tablet.

    • Hi Karim

      Tablets are converged devices, with capabilities shared by both smartphones and portable computers (notebooks/netbooks). However, tablets do not replace handsets – their form factor is too large and voice service is not sufficiently reliable or ubiquitous, among other shortcomings. Tablet price points are also not low enough (yet) to become mass-market devices, at least outside of the G8.

      My point about mass-market smartphones isn’t that they should compete with other mobile devices, anyway, but rather that a lower-cost high-functioning handset would drive lots of volume across the whole ecosystem (something that tablets likely will not do).

      Bill

  1. Great post thanks.

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