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Handset market calls in grim news

Published on Friday, 03 Aug 2012
CK Cheng bemoans “white box” smartphone makers.
Photo: CLSA Taiwan

While the network side of the telecoms and internet market suffers a shortage of talent, the opposite is true in the handset market. Nokia, for example, recently laid off 10,000 employees globally, including an estimated 2,700 in China, as the company announced it would "sharpen its strategy".

Nokia has lost significant ground in China, according to the latest sales figures from Canalys, with the company's Q2 2012 China sales volumes down 47 per cent on Q2 2011.

"Among the international vendors, only HTC managed an outstanding performance in mainland China," says Jessica Kwee, research analyst at Canalys, pointing out that HTC's shipments to China grew 389 per cent year on year for the second quarter.

According to CK Cheng, investment analyst at CLSA Taiwan, Nokia's demise in China comes from fatally overlooking the market threat from Chinese smartphone makers, which have seen a surge in sales since the second half of 2011. "Nokia can never recover in China," he says, adding that while he is more positive on Samsung, he thinks the party is pretty much over for the international brands. "Samsung and Apple have already peaked. The Chinese makers are taking the China market," he says.

It's grim news for graduates or tech executives hoping to hop on the smartphone bandwagon, especially in China. Much of the market there is now driven by hundreds of so-called "white box" smartphone makers, who buy chipsets and ready-made printed circuit boards from chip firms such as Taiwanese company MediaTek.

The scale of the white-box business is phenomenal. The figure of 1.8 million units sold by HTC in China in Q2 pales into insignificance against the number of chipsets expected to sell this year. MediaTek recently upped its sales forecast for 2012, saying it would sell around 95 million smartphone chipsets - more than the number of smartphone units sold by Nokia, Samsung, Apple and ZTE combined in Q2.

"The Chinese [white box] makers are destroying industry profitability," says Cheng. "They come out very aggressively on pricing and a lot of them don't pay tax. For the long term I don't think it is very sustainable."

In this aggressive environment there's little R&D investment, and hopefuls looking for careers may be disappointed. "I'm not sure these companies need talent," says Cheng. Their strategy is in finding a niche and opening a channel into it. Candidates interested in such careers require strong local knowledge of tier-four and tier-five cities in China and an ability to penetrate fragmented retail markets where the international players have so far failed to make an impact.

Understanding niche local markets is clearly going to be the only success strategy in the near term. "HTC's success is heavily based on the strong performance of Desire V series devices, designed with the local China market in mind. This underscores the importance of tailoring propositions to local consumer preferences," says Kwee.

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