One foot on the Japanese road

10 Mar 2008

The plight of Chinese handset-makers continues to generate the usual hand-wringing. But the fact is those vendors who focus on exports are doing much better than the stay-at-homes.

Lenovo Mobile has the biggest share of any domestic handset supplier, but it gave up on devices after a disastrous Q4. Ningbo Bird has just severed its long-term alliance with France's Sagem after both fell out of the Gartner handset top ten.

Taking their place in the Gartner listing is ZTE, powered by a global deal with Vodafone last year. TCL, who sells 90% of its devices offshore, saw its profit increase despite a 10% fall in sales.

That last figure tells the tale. China's mobile market is over-supplied and, at 41% penetration, already quite mature. It has the full attention of the world's heavyweights, in particular Nokia, whose massive scale enables it to completely dominate the entry-level market.

Not so in the growing markets of India, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, where consumers are prepared to pay a little more for the low-end or mid-range phones that Chinese suppliers specialize in.

Back at home, though, their prospects are hamstrung by their reluctance to consolidate.

A recent Economist analysis of the Japanese mobile market should serve as a warning. With its dominant electronics sector and early lead in mobile internet, Japanese firms like NEC, Fujitsu, Sharp and Sony should be setting the pace for the world.

But they don't because, like their Chinese counterparts, there are too many of them, and they are too proud to merge their businesses. They are also driven by home-grown technical standards not used elsewhere; a familiar tale to China's device and network suppliers, who have poured billions into the still-unlaunched TD-SCDMA business.

Admittedly, unlike Japanese manufacturers, Chinese suppliers are not driven by operators' specifications and, as we have seen, some have found profits in supplying export markets.

Which adds up to a mixed scorecard. But while the market remains over-supplied, Chinese handset sector has one foot on the Japanese road.

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