The first wave of Asian smartphone vendors launched LG (066570) and Samsung (005930), the latter of which ended 2012 as the No. 1 vendor in the world. The second wave began with the emergence of the Chinese powerhouses Huawei and ZTE: Huawei has become the No. 3 smartphone brand in the world with 5% market share. The third wave consists of Indian vendors that have started surging in South-East Asia and have grand designs for expansion from South America to China.
Between July and December of 2012, the trio of Karbonn, Micromaxx and Lava increased their share of India’s smartphone market to 12% from 4%. At the end of 2012, Micromax held 16% of India’s tablet market, just a step behind Samsung with 20%. Much like Samsung and LG in Korea a few years ago, India’s emerging smartphone vendors are using their substantial home market to ramp up volumes and prepare for an aggressive export drive. The pricing and specs of the new Indian high-end phones presents a stark challenge to old handset champions.
The latest Karbonn model launching this month is a good example. The Karbonn Retina A27 features a 4.3-inch display with a 246 pixels-per-inch resolution, an 8 megapixel rear and 2 megapixel front cameras and a 1.2 GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor. The phone costs a mere 9,000 rupees as it debuts in India, or less than $170. Debuting nearly simultaneously in Asia is Nokia’s (NOK) Lumia 620 budget model. It costs 60% more than the Retina A27, while it lags behind in every key specification — thickness, display size, pixel density, processor quality and camera quality. Nokia will have to try to beat its Karbonn rival on pure brand perception and build quality, while trying to convince consumers that this Nokia edge is worth a 60% price premium.
The situation resembles the 2008—2009 period, when Samsung and LG started delivering better display and camera specs than Nokia or Motorola at lower prices. That was the foundation for Samsung’s ascent to the No. 1 handset vendor in the world. As Samsung’s brand improved, it climbed rapidly up the premium ladder and now the Galaxy S III is outselling the iPhone 5 while being priced at essentially the same level.
There is one difference: leading Indian brands have now started offering arguably a lot more bang for the buck than Samsung and LG did back in 2009. The flagship Micromax and Karbonn models have display, processor and camera specs that take them clearly above the current mid-range level, whereas Korean vendors originally made their big breakthrough on more modest devices. The year 2013 will be the test of how rapidly the Indian brands can expand beyond their home market.