Friday, 21 July 2017

Yet another article on the 10-year anniversary of the iPhone

An extra-terrestrial alien visiting Earth in 2007 and returning, now, one decade later, might, at first glance, notice little difference in smartphones between times. For example, most-recent iPhone models superficially appear very similar to their predecessors including the first iPhone model in 2007. The external designs have remained fundamentally much the same including thin form factors, rounded corners and relatively large displays (with multi-touch operation) in comparison to featurephones.

                                                    Spot the difference

                           iPhone (2007)

However, superficial appearances are very misleading: technological capabilities in mobile phones have improved massively with numerous valuable innovations from various contributors over the last decade, as did capabilities over the preceding couple of decades since the introduction of the first cellular “bricks” in the mid 1980s.

Another major milestone in cellular technology developments towards 5G

Recent new technology deployments with Gigabit LTE at Telstra in Australia, Sprint in the US and EE in the UK highlight how much cellular communications technologies have improved since the introduction of mobile data services with circuit-switched and then packet-switched offerings from around 20 years ago. Peak and average user data speeds on cellular networks have increased by a factor of 10,000 over 20 years. By way of comparison, microprocessor performance doubling every couple of years, as predicted by Moore’s Law, has increased only one thousand-fold over that period. Cellular performance improvements are therefore quite spectacular given the vagaries of connecting through the ether up to hundreds of metres, as well as processing those signals in the confines of around one square centimetre of baseband processor silicon!

2016 iPhone 7 is 1,000 times faster than the 2007 model

Whereas Apple has done an outstanding job in improving its iPhones in various ways and in motivating its customers to upgrade to later models, it is significantly dependent on other companies for many technical innovations that it includes in its devices.

While marketing departments and the press look for eye-catching new features on specific device models that might surge demand for the latter, it is relentless standards development work with innovations and performance improvements in cellular technologies to increase speeds, network capacity and reduce power consumption that provide the crucial underpinnings for these ––particularly for HD, 4K or even 8K video that sends or receives very large volumes of data over the mobile networks.

Inspiration and perspiration

Development work for this including 4G and 5G technologies is largely undertaken by a hard core of several major technology-developing firms. Research on attendance records of all the 3GPP working group meetings between 2005 and 2014 reveals that a few highly-active firms are largely responsible for the technical developments in that standards development organisation. Over this period, a total of 3,452,040 man hours were spent in 825 working group meetings, mostly in the development of 3G and 4G standards. Distribution of contributions to 3GPP is highly skewed, with a few firms submitting the vast majority. For example, the top two percent of firms (i.e. 9 of them) are responsible for submitting 60 percent of all contributions. Furthermore, approximately one-third of all participating firms (i.e. 161 of them) have not submitted a single contribution to 3GPP.

However, most of the activity in the public records of standards development organisation 3GPP is the mere tip of the iceberg in terms of the total amount of development work undertaken, with even more extensive other activities submerged from public view.

As I noted in a report on innovation and intellectual property protection, it is a popular misconception that innovation is random or serendipitous. In fact, it takes many ideas to find a few initiatives worth experimenting with, which may then enable some to be identified that are worth investing in significantly and might ultimately lead to a winner or two with sufficient development effort and investment. This work is largely undertaken outside of SDO meetings.

The numbers of patents and patent applications declared to the ETSI IPR database as possibly being essential to these cellular standards are also very skewed. A small number of mostly the same companies as above account for a large proportion of patent declarations. When I last checked, seven companies including Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Qualcomm and Samsung accounted for 70 percent of the many thousands of patents declared in the period 2008 to mid 2015.

Value for money in cellular patent licensing

Licensing fees paid in the smartphone industry are substantially for standard-essential patents and in some cases for non-SEPs. Total patent licensing costs for Apple and other smartphone OEMs at around only a few percent of revenues are good value given the development efforts and performance improvements delivered by technology developers.

Licensing fees pale in comparison to the profits generated by Apple. The original iPhone was introduced in June 2007 at a price of $599 in the US. This and subsequent iPhone models have generated very large profit margins, as illustrated by the difference between retail prices and manufacturing costs.

Substantial mark ups and profits to Apple on iPhone

4G LTE- Advanced
Version (storage)
Full retail price*
BoM cost*
Markup ($)
Markup (%)
* Source: TechInsights/Portelligent

According to Strategy Analytics, Apple sold 231 million iPhones with an operating profit (i.e. after some other operational costs) averaging $239 per phone in 2015. That represents 36 percent of its $669 average selling price that year.

Following the introduction of a new model every year at gradually increasing prices, “the 10th anniversary iPhone, the next model, expected to be massively redesigned and packed with state-of-the-art technology, could sell for as much as $1,200 to $1,400, according to some estimates”.
Analysts also estimate patent licensing fees paid to Qualcomm average about $10 to $20 per iPhone. Apple has stated that Qualcomm charges it "at least five times more in payments than all the other cellular patent licensors we have agreements with combined."

On that basis, Apple is paying a total of between $12.50 and $25.00 per iPhone in fees for licensing from all cellular patent licensors. That is equal to between two percent and four percent of iPhone prices. Licensing fees as a percentage of consumers’ total cellular expenditures over a smartphone's approximate two-year service life, including operator service fees averaging around $40 per connection per month in the US, for example, are considerably lower.

Happy anniversaries

It is also ten years since I published my abovementioned report, noting as well that innovation can occur in many ways, with a variety of different business models and that fully vertically-integrated companies had become a rarity in technology industries. I stated that explicit recognition of value through licensing was increasing innovation, competition and customer choice with third-party supply of IP, in addition to that for components and manufacturing. That conclusion still holds.

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