The cheap, voice-centric, clamshell handset still rules the American marketplace, as Motorola Inc.’s Razr V3 remains the top-selling handset in the country, according to recent data from NPD Group.
Yet smartphones claim three of the top five slots, with Apple Inc.’s iPhone 3G at No. 2 and Research In Motion Ltd.’s Blackberry Curve at No. 3 and Pearl at No. 5.
In that sense, NPD’s list reflects both market mainstays and upstarts. (The company is withholding proprietary data on the percentage of market share these devices command.)
Well-marketed feature phones, with a music emphasis, also do well: LG Electronics Co. Ltd.’s Chocolate rounds out the top-five list at No. 4.
“The voice, browsing and music features represented on this list speak to the diversity of portfolios the carriers must maintain for a diverse consumer base,” said Ross Rubin, analyst with NPD Group.
Each one of the top-selling handsets says a little bit about Americans’ shifting preferences, too, according to Rubin.
The Razr still maintains “great mind share” among consumers who still find value in a voice-centric phone in a slim form factor, Rubin said. But the once-premium handset has become emblematic of carriers’ popular offerings of inexpensive, often “free” handsets that entice subscribers.
The Razr V3, in one form or another, sells at all four of the top-tier U.S. carriers as well as many regional carriers and independent dealers. The downside, Rubin said: As the company spread the product far and wide, racking up enormous volumes, the Razr’s profit margin shrank, hurting Moto’s bottom line. Its presence at the top of the list – a position unchanged since NPD began tracking in 2005 – also is a reminder that Motorola continues to search for a follow-on handset platform.
The iPhone 3G, of course, represents the touchscreen smartphone at its best: a browsing monster with a fun user interface that has alerted Americans to the possibilities of a mobile, desktop-like experience that has reshaped the market. Rubin said that the 3G model’s pull on subscribers outside its perch at AT&T Mobility – some 30% of iPhone 3G buyers switched to AT&T Mobility from their original carrier to get the device, according to NPD – is actually less than the original iPhone’s pull.
“Verizon Wireless emerged unscathed upon the launch of the first iPhone (last year),” Rubin said, “but Verizon gave up more customers this time.”
It may be those customers, Rubin speculated, that were louder in their complaints about 3G connectivity on AT&T Mobility’s less mature 3G network, due to a more mature performance on Verizon Wireless’ 3G network.
As for RIM, its success in transitioning from an enterprise-only approach to embracing more consumer-friendly designs and form factors, and its ubiquity among carriers, is well represented by the Curve and Pearl handsets, the analyst said.
Rubin attributed the success of the LG Chocolate – an exclusive at Verizon Wireless – in part to canny promotion from the carrier around the device’s music capabilities.
So, are Americans’ tastes really shifting and embracing these myriad features and forms? Or are carriers’ subsidies (and thus retail pricing) and marketing really driving the bus?
“Is it carrier push or consumer pull?” Rubin asked, rhetorically. “It’s a little of both. Put another way: Are devices changing or are consumers changing? It’s both.”
“It’s a little more consumer pull than carrier push,” the analyst added. “With the iPhone, you don’t have a wide array of network-based revenue streams that typically get pushed into high-end feature phones. The iPhone puts greater emphasis on browsing the Web – the most compelling aspect of the desktop experience. And that has opened consumers’ eyes to the possibilities.”