Smartphones: Nokia Stumbling, Analysts Cautious

Is wireless going to be the bright spot the industry is hoping it will be this year? Maybe not: Analysts are revising down their predictions for device shipments, despite spending the fourth quarter of 2008 estimating that wireless—and smartphones in particular—will continue to deliver positive sales news.

The fourth quarter of 2008 actually ended up being dismal for phone manufacturers, being the first time the holiday period has not recorded double digit growth in seven years, according to the IDC. Shipments for the quarter fell 11.6 percent year over year. And overall, phone shipments for 2008 managed to grow just 4.3 percent.

“Worse-than-expected results and a steady flow of negative economic news are indicating that 2009 will be gloomier than predicted,” said Ryan Reith, senior research analyst with IDC’s Worldwide Mobile Phone Tracker.

The IDC predicts to be a very rough 2009, with growth of -8.3 percent for the year. Yes, that’s a negative number. And for “mature” regions such as Japan, the United States and Western Europe, shipment declines will range from -24.6 percent to -12.4 percent throughout 2009.

Meanwhile smartphones are not turning out to be the savior everyone thought they would be in terms of sales, despite ongoing success over at Apple Inc. Analyst firm Gartner Inc. said that smartphones accounted for only 12 percent of all mobile device sales for the quarter, compared to earlier predictions for percentages in the 20-point range.

For 2009, IDC’s smartphone prediction has been scaled back as a result of the industry’s changing dynamics: Tougher than anticipated economic times make the high price point these devices carry an issue, despite the consumer thirst for data applications. Thus, its previously stated 8.7 percent growth has been reduced to 3.4 percent, the IDC said.

A possible bellwether is No.1 global handset juggernaut Nokia, which lost market share in the fourth quarter, going from 50.9 percent to 40.8 percent according to Gartner. More tellingly, it saw a decline in smartphone sales of 16.8 percent year-over-year despite its move into Internet services and a focus on its N-series models. Some of the loss is attributable to Nokia losing ground to Research in Motion Ltd.’s various BlackBerries and the Apple iPhone, but part of it is simply a scaling back in uptake for higher-end gadgets across Europe.

iSuppli Corp. meanwhile said that if consumer confidence continues to erode, it has a new “worst case scenario” forecast that calls for smartphone shipment growth of only 6 percent this year, reaching 183.9 million units and making up16.6 percent of total mobile handset shipments.

It also has an optimistic forecast that calls for 192.3 million units in 2009, up 11.1 percent from 173.6 million in 2008 and making up17.4 percent of total mobile handset unit shipments in 2009.

“For the optimistic scenario to come to fruition, wireless network operators must cut fees for data services and offer aggressive subsidies to reduce consumer smartphone prices,” said Tina Teng, senior analyst for wireless communications for iSuppli. “Furthermore, wireless operators and handset brands have to sell consumers on the value of smartphones to encourage customers to upgrade.”

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