Larger iPhones May Be a Game Changer

The latest phone sales share data from Kantar Worldpanel paints a bright picture for Apple with iOS gains in most countries, but diving deeper into a few countries would lead to some interesting questions. Are the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus game changers, propelling Apple past its "niche" smartphone status in developed markets such as U.S. and Great Britain? The answer may have far-reaching consequences for services like Apple Pay, Beats Music streaming, app developer innovation, wearables, smart home, and connected cars, not to mention other tech companies like Google and Amazon. 

Some industry analysts have been pushing the idea that phone market share questions are yesterday's news with iPhone destined to the top niche of the market and Android representing everything else. I'm becoming increasingly uncomfortable with that assertion, especially given some underlying trends occurring in the smartphone market following the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus launch. I have little confidence that the current phone market as it appears today will look the same for years to come.

In the U.S., the iPhone nearly outsold Android during the three months ending November 2014, as seen in Exhibit 1, which also includes Android and iOS share of sales in the U.S. going back to 2012. Obviously an iPhone launch helps boost share as loyal iPhone users upgrade their phones, but the current upgrade cycle is different. 

Exhibit 1: iOS and Android Smartphone Sales Share - U.S. 

According to recent Kantar data, iPhone 6/6 Plus sales share in the U.S has surpassed iPhone 5s/5c and is now tracking very close to the iPhone 5. Up to now, this would not suggest that larger iPhones are a game changer as the sales patterns are following the typical iPhone upgrade effect. However, today's smartphone market is indeed different with Apple now selling a 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch iPhone. Large screens were the key differentiator for Samsung, the leading hardware manufacturer for Android, for the better part of the past three years. Add what seems to be a lack of innovation with Samsung's latest Galaxy offerings, including the company's recent comments about 2015 being another troubling year for Samsung phones in face of Apple's latest offerings, and the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus may represent a game changer for the U.S. smartphone market with iOS outselling Android. 

In Exhibit 2, iPhone 6 and 6 Plus sales share can follow two primary routes: A or  B. Route A would reflect increased sales share approaching 60% at the expense of Android as the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are true game changers. Route B would reflect the typical decline in share following an iPhone launch as the iPhone upgrade cycle slows and Android users do not switch to iPhone. Next month's Kantar sales report will be quite telling as any continued share gain (or even flat share) at the expense of Android will stand out versus the iPhone 5, 5s, and 5c reiterations, suggesting that the upgrade cycle is indeed continuing to be strong and users are switching from Android to iOS. 

Exhibit 2: iOS Smartphone Sales Share and Possible Share Trajectories - U.S. 

Why is this important? Isn't market share an old topic? The ramifications of iPhone representing close to 60% of smartphone sales in the U.S. has dramatic implications in terms of Apple Pay adoption, Beats Music subscription services, and other areas including app developer focus, smart devices, and wearables. I continue to think that owning the most lucrative 30-40% of the smartphone market is enough to warrant sustainability as developers remain invested in the ecosystem. However, if iPhone can capture 60%+ share, the argument changes rather dramatically for services with which adoption is more easily assured by the sheer number of users and not just the top portion. For example, with iPhone representing 60% of U.S. smartphone market, Apple Pay has a significant leg up on CurrentC, Beats Music (if pushed to all iOS devices) would gain more power over competing streaming services, and Apple Watch would be even that more compelling as a communication medium. Not to mention, iMessage, FaceTime, and Photo Stream would serve as lucrative communication channels. In addition, iOS and the connected home and car take on more meaning if iOS becomes the dominant mobile platform in the U.S. in terms of volume. 

Concerning U.S. mobile carrier pricing plans, in reality, as carriers move away from hidden built-in subsidy plans, and instead push $0 down, 24-month installment plans, the "iPhone subsidy boost" topic is losing relevancy as consumers are now more aware of how much their phone really cost. Despite this trend, iPhone sales share pre-iPhone 6 and 6 Plus has tracked very similarly to previous years, which would go against consensus that iPhone's strength was primarily dependent on full-blown subsidies masking the iPhone's high price. In retrospect, the ability to buy new iPhones sooner (which the new plans promote) may pose as another benefit to Apple as well. 

In Great Britain, the iPhone 6/6 Plus would appear to already be a game changer, clearly reaching all-time smartphone share levels. While the iPhone refresh cycle is certainly helping, approximately 20% of iPhone buyers during the three months ending November 2014 had switched from Android according to Kantar. 

Exhibit 3:  iOS Smartphone Sales Share - Great Britain

Of course, China's smartphone growth potential cannot be ignored, and iOS sales share is indeed lower in China than other countries, including U.S. and Great Britain. As shown in Exhibit 4, iOS sales share has been on the rise recently and jumped 2.4 points from October to November, this despite the new iPhones launching in mid-October. China Mobile began offering iPhone in January 2014, but the delayed boost can be seen as iOS sales share started to pick up in June. I estimate customers are now buying 5-7 million iPhones a quarter through China Mobile. Tim Cook mentioned on Apple's earnings call that 80% of iPhone sales in China do not involve a subsidy. Despite the lack of subsidies, iPhone share is approaching 18-month highs and the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus will likely lead to continued share gains.   

Exhibit 4: iOS Smartphone Sales Share - China

As many tech and mobile analysts focus on China, India, and emerging markets to determine how the next billion users will join the mobile era, some have said that the major questions surrounding mobile in developed markets have been answered. I disagree. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus introduction has the potential to be a game changer as iOS nears a majority of sales in a few countries, a marked step-up from previous iPhone reiterations. Implications on ecosystem services dealing with payments, music, apps, cars, and connected devices cannot be underestimated. The big question now is as the iPhone 6/6 Plus upgrade cycle slows (which has been the pattern going 3-4 months out from launch), will Android converts drive iOS share even further? Sales share data over the next few months will be very telling.  Samsung's smartphone troubles have been well publicized, but only now are we starting to see the impact, and Apple looks to be the primary beneficiary in many countries. Apple may be in a sweet spot here.  If iPhone 6/6 Plus don't bring many from Android, the iOS ecosystem is now vibrant enough to be self-sustaining. However, if Android switching becomes a theme, the iOS ecosystem value increases in terms of messaging, communications, and services.

While China, India, and developing markets represent the unknown in mobile, I think we need to keep an eye on developed markets in which Apple is gaining strength. 

This report was produced by Neil Cybart on January 7, 2015 and is not meant to be used as investment advice. I publish a daily email about Apple called AAPL Orchard.