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« Previewing Year 2012 in Smartphone Bloodbath - Year 3 is the Digital Jamboree | Main | So the Digital Jamboree starts: Q1 Results from RIM are horrid - Blackberry in tailspin »

March 30, 2012



Hi Tommy,

The cliff theory makes sense, but I also see a marathon theory here; I mean, competitors are so astonished that they have to stop.

I remember two French brands, Sagem and Alcatel, which were quite popular a decade ago (at least in France). They used to be modern, offered with many packages, with a good pricing.

And now ? Nothing. Sagem completely discontinued mobile phones, and surprisingly to me Alcatel still does mobile phones (even Android powered smartphones), but in quite a low volume.

What happened? I think the pace was too fast; as you said, life cycle is very short for mobile phones, and that's a lot of investment for a manufacturer to stay competitive. Like exhausted runners, Sagem, Siemens, Ericsson... decided/had to quit the race, leaving the best runners.

Timo Koola

Tomi, very interesting and I think the Cliff is something very real. Reminds me somewhat of a story you linked (don't remember was it Twitter or your blog) way back about how platforms die:

Do you think there are early warning signs that could predict the cliff like declining ASP? Also do you think it could be possible to define the cliff more technically (e.g. in terms of market share decline in certain time frame)? I know you and many others attribute Nokia's cliff to its new strategy. However was "The Cliff effect" something that was already going on for Nokia (marketshare went down 70%->40%->25% in rather short period of time) before Feb 11?

Dipankar Mitra

I think this makes a lot of sense. Replacement cycle (to me at least) seems to be an important cause. Once buyers start hating your phone, you have lesser time to fix the problems.

Iliyan ILF Stoyanov

Hmm, interesting theory. Really interesting. I kinda disagree with only one statement about the iPhone. I do not think it was the most important phone of all time. It is in its essence an obvious evolution (but not a revolutionary product) of the technology that was already around for a decade, but nobody really cared about at that time.

As to parallels with other industries, this might come as a surprise to most people, but I strongly believe a parallel can be made with motor racing and specifically with the pinnacle of motorsport - Formula 1. There are tons of examples there of teams (and for the most part of them F1 was a core business, so not a vanity project of sorts) that were at the top or very well established in the middle of the pack and in just few short years - ranging from 1 to 4 they completely vanished and/or went bankrupt. There are two obvious parallels between F1 and the mobile business - the one is that both are extremely technological businesses that need to produce physical goods that deliver results and the second, and I think that might be the more important one, the life of a product spans essentially to 12 months with some transfer of technology between years. I think if someone has the resources and access to data about F1 teams financials and does an analysis the graph will look very much like the one you provided, although I wouldn't be surprised if they overlap completely. As a side note FOM and FIA seem to have the effect on teams very similar to what operators do to manufacturers of handsets, so parallels seem even better from that angle.

But again I'm far more interested in the reason why this happens, and I'm not really sure that you provide that, I see only the end results. My personal thoughts are, that this is because most of the manufacturers fail to innovate and deliver top notch products but that is entirely different discussion I suppose.

Antoine RJ Wright

Raw thoughts Tomi; I'm going to let this simmer for a bit...

Measurable observations (check): market participants, replacement cycle, usage metrics, market performance
Potential disruptors: carriers, input changes, cellular technologies, user/consumer evolution

What might bug a few folks looking at this is how you (seem) to imply that the solutions tried/done don't work w/o offering paths to success. At least in terms of testing the theory, there needs to be a recripocal example that can at least be hypothesized into existence.

Wrench: With the exception of Nokia, pretty much those who prove your theory were specalized in one specifc vein of mobile. Nokia has had several forks in the fire, could that invalidate them, or at least the entire company (not specific units) as being suspectible to the Cliff Theory?

That's all for now. I'll think a bit more; perhaps blog something when I link to it. Thanksf or the thinking cap as always Tomi

Malcolm Williams (domineus)

There's a lot said here. I mean a lot of dearth that I didn't even begin to realize when one considers the mobile space. I can only speak of bb and windows mobile in terms of what led to their fall, but you hit on many similarities that should be honestly scientifically investigated.

The one thing that needs to be noted is that out of all of the companies, Windows Mobile represents a quagmire of sorts with bouts of very high success in a post iphone world (namely for Americans in the touch pro 2 and HD2 respectively) and so many eggs it couldn't salvage it. The main thing is that Windows Mobile wasn't a hardware company and it had a lot of chances to rebound from its fall so it wouldn't have been a cliff but a decline in market for a year or two. The main issue is that Microsoft itself is the cause of its fall. As well as the current falling out with many OEMs with its rebranding. Even with Nokia, as you've pointed out, Microsoft global market share in the smart phone sector couldn't get any worse.

There's a lot of fair and reasonable information I think many users should read, whether they're fanboys or just casual readers to get a grasp of what is going on to their smart phone. Adoption rates are becoming faster with many users switching smartphones within a 6 month to one year change.

I think if combined, it doesn't make a complete fall. I think the industry evolution also creates the standards to make a sharp decline turn into a fall. Such that is what occurred with Windows Mobile and its eventual rebranding into Windows Phone.

Per usual, very deep stuff Tomi! You've got a fan

Paul Cosway

Three thoughts:

1. The conceptual basis for the cliff is Utterback's theory of Dominant Design. When a "winning" new design emerges, it does quickly dominate. If the makers of the losing designs cannot quickly copy the dominant design, they lose very, very quickly. Even "pretty close" can be too far away from what the market wants to be able to survive.

2. This dominant design and cliff phenomenon have recurred in mobile phones because the definition of "phone" (and therefore the dominant design) has changed several times. By contrast, the definition of "automobile" has changed very little over decades. Yes, many details change, but there is little or no functional difference between an automobile manufactured in 1990 and one sitting on a new car lot today.

3. The cliff will likely happen again, but don't bet on when, where or why. I don't think the concept of "phone" has stopped evolving, but it does seem that it may be at a fairly high performance plateau. There will undoubtedly be a lot of innovation in the near future. Whether or not it leads to a cliff is determined by whether it reinforces the current dominant design or breaks the mold.

Tomi T Ahonen

Wow 7 comments already? That was fast. Thanks guys! Excellent very very good comments and observations. I'll reply to each of you of course. Keep the comments coming

Tomi Ahonen :-)

Tomi T Ahonen

Hi vladkr, Timo and Dipankar

vladkr - excellent point. I think you might have a typo in the beginning, perhaps you intended to say 'competitors are so exhausted they have to stop' rather than 'astonished' haha..

Timo - great points and wow, yeah, a warning sign would be tremendous. I think we hopefully will have some of our colleagues take a serious look at each of those cases, and perhaps discover others, and do a far more 'robust' study of them. I think this could be a very interesting MBA thesis project also for any students out there among our readers?

On Nokia, Timo, if you average out the quarterly fluctuations and do only Year-on-Year market shares, the decline has been rather steady up to end of year 2010, about 5% per year of lost market share. A steady decline (as to be expected as Nokia started with 100% haha). But then after Elop Effect, they fell off The Cliff too, and lost half of their market share actually the fastest of this set of the Sad Six haha.. They lost half in only 9 months (or in 7.7 months if you count from Elop Effect specifically, haha). So even here, if you plot it on a graph, the decline was gradual, then there is the pronounced Cliff effect in 2011.

Dipankar - brilliant point! And thanks! I updated the story with the mis-match of replacement cycle and new product design cycle, which kind of creates this 'Collapse Trap' so that if they start to fall, they fall fast and die. I mentioned you of course in the added part to the article

Tomi Ahonen :-)


I think i have an idea that can help you prove your theory. In a sprint, if you trip once you have lost, there is no time for recovery. This is the situation in the handset industry. You dont have time to reinvent yourself in a reactionary manner. Particularly today when that shift also requires that build an ecosystem of services around your device offerings.

So if it is the short handset cycles that cause this, then i would say...what causes the short handset cycles. I have seen a bunch of data that shows a strong correlation to handset subsidies (R=.64).In short for every $100 that is subsidized, 9 month come off of the handset life cycle. None of the industries that you mentioned in this article have the level of subsidization that is seen in the handset industry (i believe that approximately 70% of smartphones are subsidized).

A good empirical test is to look at the market share shifts of smartphone platforms in non subsidized markets. I think you will find in all cases that market share drops happen first and fastest in subsidized markets. While emerging markets will naturally witness a slower decline due to the inherently longer ownership cycles.

Granted there are a bunch of other influences such as economic conditions, legislative, and technological shifts that are overlooked by a handset OEM. But i strongly suspect that if these factors are tested for correlation against handset subsidization, it will show that subsidization is the hidden evil for handset OEMs.


I think the cliff effect is more generic than for only for telecommunication companies. In the beginning when a company starts to grow the organization is usually in a size fit for its purpose, the organization is lean and efficient. When a company starts to grow, administration exponentially grows with it. Then starts the middle manager circus. Companies tends to instate more and more middle managers when the company grows. Middle managers are expensive and they are also tend to create more bureaucratic ways of working. I've personally seen ridiculous cases where there is a full time manager on 5 producing workers. Of course an organization like this bleeds money and is very slow and this is very competitors find it easy to overtake the company. The company panics and instate even more managers to sort out the mess but that is like pouring gasoline on fire. Soon enough the company will find itself in a bad position.

I've seen several companies gone through this cycle and when goes bad they tend to shrink again to their core business, then the process starts all over again.


A great insight to the world of smartphones! Maybe this cliff thing is peculiar to smartphones because of the high rate of turnover. People tend to use cars and TVs longer than phones. Turnover for phones is 1-2 years. Manufacturers are thus forced to be on their toes. Innovate and be competitive or die!

Nokia and Blackberry at the moment fall into this scenarios. They need an ace up their sleeves for their very survival! Otherwise they will fall off the cliff too!


Could it be that the cell phone industry is the first one where the replacement cycle is shorter than the development cycle? Looking at myself I replace my phone significantly more often than I do my computer, TV or car.

In addition, the operator's habit of subsidizing the purchase price in return for a long term contract means that the upfront investment is lower. This will make people more prone to switch, and since the investment is not too different between different brands, you go with the newest.

I also believe that the lack of consistency between phones from the same handset maker also comes into play. I remember back in the days when I owned Nokia phones, every time I got a new one I had to relearn the menus, the button presses, etc. That means that I have no major advantage of sticking with a particular brand. I think Apple has managed to solve one of those problems, plus the fact that iTunes makes the phone very sticky.

Would this look different if we had to pay the full cost of the phone up front, and then pay lower monthly fees that only covered the network cost? Would the TV market look different if we had more competition in the cable industry (LG 55" only available with Comcast)? Would cars sell in a different way if oil companies could force us to only buy their gas?

I think you have some very interesting points. In the end I think that the choice of the handset manufacturers to give away some (a lot) of their marketing and pricing power to the network operators is what is causing the volatility and limits their power to adjust when the decline starts.


Horace Dediu of Asymco had written a similar article sometime back with lots of examples:


I think the cliff effect in phone industry is different from car, and other because phone is the first item we look in the morning, and also the last item we look at night. Tomi also wrote that the Japanese took their phone while their bathing. Phone it's our wives!! :)

The faster cliff effect is also effected by the fast changing rate in the no subsidies market because all the user need to purchase full price, so the phone still have HIGH value after 3 months, or 6 months use. Therefore, there were lots of young exchanging their phone very quick. Because they could just easily sell their phone. They were thinking just like borrowing/renting the phone. Buy it at US$ 600, then in 6 months sell it at US$ 400. So, they pay rent US$ 200/6 months. I don't know how about in subsidies market...

I also think that this cliff effect is also because phone were easily lent-able between youngster, so when someone have cooler phone, the non-cooler phone owner feel the heat, and will not buy their current kind of phone again.... change brand.... or maybe, they would just change instantly, sell the current one, and upgrade to new one.

I also think that this cliff effect is faster in phone because social status, prestige, etc. So if your phone is not cool, your not cool. so, if one company lost the cool effect, the downward spiral can be scary.

or maybe because it's too easy to swap for new one. if you want to sell car or house, you need to do a lot of paperwork.

or maybe because the improvement rate of the devices is very fast. i.e a change from n95 to N97 to N8 is a very big jump. but in car analogy the user would not feel a lot of additional gain from changing from C200 year 2000 to C200 year 2002 to C200 year 2004. or maybe changing an LCD tv from year 2000 to LCD tv from year 2002 to LCD tv from year 2004.

Tomi T Ahonen

Hi Ilivan, Antoine and Malcolm

Ilivan - haha we disagree on the iPhone but thats fine. Great example from Formula 1, and I'd love to accept it immediately as you know, I am a huge F1 fan (and being a Finn, gotta say go Kimi! go Heikki!). But in F1 there is natural enormous volatility. So in F1 there are both sudden total jumps from nowhere to the top (witness Brawn world championship when previous year didn't win anything). So yes, there are massive collapses in F1 from last year's dominant winner to sometimes a car that can't win anything the next year. But the volatility goes both ways. In mobile phones, it is utterly impossible to get to 20% in a 3 or 4 year period - obviously am talking of total phones. Apple's growth in the smartphone segment has been impressive but in all phones they only went from zero to 6% in the 5 year period.

Antoine - very good points and you specifically touch upon one that I have to come back to in the follow-up to this blog, and that is product portfolio. While Nokia's smartphone market share is currently crashing, overall Nokia handsets fell only slightly and if we remove smartphone performance, the remaining handset unit market share was well within normal Nokia annual fluctuation. So the 'dont put all your eggs in one basket' rule would apply here. At least it suggests iPhone might be more at risk, Samsung far less so. Definitely Palm and arguably Blackberry would be victims of the point. But even Nokia's smartphone offering was the most diverse so this is a kind of puzzle (obviously you and I know why Nokia is crashing, its the Elop Effect haha, but whatever caused it, its still 'The Cliff')

Malcolm - thanks, very good observations on Windows Mobile and some of those issues obviously also carry onto Windows Phone

Tomi Ahonen :-)

Sander van der Wal

For people to buy a different phone model when they hate their current one, there has to be one that they really like a lot, and that they can buy for the money they are willing to spend. Apple was selling every iPhone they could possibly make, so there were lots of people who could not buy one, as much as they wanted. Which is an alternative explanation why RIM and Nokia were able to keep growing in the early iPhone years.

What happened then is that these people waited an extra contract term and then bought an iPhone, whichnthey wanted to do two years before, but could not for lack of iPhones.


@Tomi: you're right, it was a typo (end of the week effect) and I meant tired.

If we go further with the cliff theory, and if Nokia is falling from it, unless it has a parachute (and if it's not too late to open it), the body will look quite ugly as the cliff is quite high.

Kimi is good, and I really like his Finnish concision... I really appreciated his appearance on Top Gear (it was as joyful as the episode with the King Hakkinen)


There is no "cliff theory", just CEO's who fail to see when their industries basis of competition changes. Happens all the time, with fall rates slower or faster in proportional to their replacement cycles. Slower for cars on one extreme - faster for fashion clothing on the other.

Antoine RJ Wright

Henrik's statement hit on part of where my thoughts go with this:
"Could it be that the cell phone industry is the first one where the replacement cycle is shorter than the development cycle?"

If this is provable to each device maker, and possibility to carriers/OTT services that items are replaced faster than they can be developed (cue TechCrunch), then disruption in design, logistics, etc is quite disruptive. A slip when devices are no longer sticky is a cliff. A slip when services are no longer sticky is a cliff.

The question ahead of this cliff is "what causes it?" Is it input paradigm, is it customization, localization, network tech, access, price, or some balance of all of these. If in this equation it becomes better to replace than evolve, he whoos more agie,or ahead of the curve wins (I just proved Tim Cook's worth to Apple).

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