We all know that consumer electronics industry projections are useless in the three-year time frame, and grotesquely wrong beyond the five-year horizon. Or are they? Back in 2006, Informa was close to industry consensus when it forecast smartphone unit sales of 333 million for 2011. Even though the prediction was made before the iPhone launched and it ended up being somewhat off the mark — the actual number turned out to be about 490 million units, according to IDC — Informa had a surprisingly accurate read on how smartphone growth would compare to overall industry growth.
Informa ended up low-balling the 2011 volume projection because 60-70% volume growth seemed unlikely for the last two years of the forecast period. But the firm still came surprisingly close to the actual number, even with no knowledge about how the iPhone would transform the industry.
Back in 2006, Informa expected smartphones to make up “more than 25% of the total phone market” in 2011. The real number turned out to be about 31%. The read was remarkably close considering the half-decade forecast span, iOS and Android revolutions and the intervening financial crisis.
We all know several examples of telecom industry projections that turned awesomely sour after just one or two years. But it’s worth noting that the industry had a very good idea of where it was heading back in 2006.
Yet having a notion of how rapidly the handset industry was shifting towards smartphones did little good for most vendors and software companies. The scale of smartphone unit growth wasn’t the real point — the real point was how rapidly the industry entered the touchscreen era after 2007. That touchscreen transition dictated a shift towards large displays with high pixel density, as well as devices underpinned by rich application ecosystems.
Vendors ranging from RIM to Nokia could not destroy their old software and hardware platforms and build from the scratch; that seemed too painful in 2008 and 2009. Vendors like Sony Ericsson and Motorola were just a bit too hesitant about abandoning their non-touchscreen devices. Apple was a completely new entrant and Samsung was so weak in OS and UI know-how back in 2006 that it did not mind embracing Android lustily.
So as it turns out, this one instance of the telecom industry accurately gauging the importance and growth of a new product segment turned out to be something of a hollow victory. Most key players of 2006 realized full well the hardware volume potential of the smartphone industry, but could not grasp how rapidly non-touchscreen handsets would wither away.