UK consumers may have an insatiable appetite for high-end smartphones, but for the past six months, they have been very patient. Rather than immediately upgrading to a new handset the second their contract expires, they have sat on their previous generation device and waited to evaluate the vast array of handsets coming to the UK market in the fourth quarter of 2012. Recent weeks have seen announcements from Sony, Nokia, Motorola and HTC, in addition to the devices launched during the course of 2012. And then there’s the small matter of new smartphones from Samsung and Apple.
As a result, operators say there are an unprecedented number of UK customers out of contract. Estimates vary, although sources dismissed Carphone Warehouse’s claim that 15% of the UK population would upgrade their handset – a conservative reading of that figure would mean around 7.5 million consumers are looking to get their hands on a new device. One operator source predicted it was between one and two million.So what will they be buying? One senior operator source said the recent handset announcements would have no impact on how the UK market has operated for some time, with Apple and Samsung’s top-end smartphones slugging it out for the number one slot.
Carphone Warehouse has nailed its colours to the mast, with CEO Andrew Harrison predicting the iPhone 5 will be the retailer’s bestselling phone of 2012. The company has chalked up 1.6 million iPhone sales since Apple launched its first generation device in 2007.
While there were no major surprises in Apple’s iPhone 5 announcement, the device is expected to help the company smash its previous record for iPhone sales, when it shifted 37 million units in the quarter after the iPhone 4S launch. EE is likely to be the main beneficiary, given its effective monopoly on providing UK consumers with the 4G version of the handset, although O2 UK CEO Ronan Dunne said last week its call centres were ‘in meltdown’ due to the sheer volume of queries about the device. However, EE’s rivals may have to wait until late 2013, the likeliest launch date for an iPhone 5S that could potentially feature a chipset capable of running 4G on the 800MHz and 2.6GHz frequencies set to be auctioned off by Ofcom early next year.
Samsung’s momentum shows no sign of slowing down, though the manufacturer has denied rumours that a Galaxy S IV could be revealed at Mobile World Congress in February. Retailers said its Olympic marketing effort is likely to stretch into the autumn, with the Galaxy Note II and the world’s first Windows Phone 8 device, the Ativ S, on the launchpad.
But what of that other Windows Phone 8 stalwart, Nokia? The Finnish manufacturer was seen to have had a mixed launch of its new Lumia devices. On the one hand, its features, including quirky location-based services like City Lens where you can view the details of buildings through the phone’s camera, impressed industry figures and analysts alike. On the other hand, the lack of a launch date and pricing infuriated consumers and retailers, while the PR misstep of wrongly claiming a promotional video was filmed using a Nokia device moved the attention away from the devices.UK operators expect the Lumia 820 and 920 to hit these shores in late October or early November. However, they warned that pricing would be critical for these devices as Nokia has to convince consumers to switch from Apple or Samsung.
Apple has been widely credited for getting the pricing of its iPhone 4S range right, with its previous generation of devices falling in price and potentially opening themselves up to a new market in the UK. However, given the level of competition, the Cupertino company has a fight on its hands this year. David McQueen, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media, said: ‘Apple won’t have it all its own way to the end of the year as it faces continued pressure from Samsung and now Nokia with its new range of Lumia devices running on the Windows Phone 8 [platform]. In combination, the strength of these devices and platforms will combine to give the most competitive and intriguing smartphone quarter for a number of years.’