New iPhone the latest chapter in the smartphone success story as attention turns to emerging markets

The unveiling of the latest generation of iPhones this week – the ‘iPhone 6’ and the larger-screen ‘iPhone 6 Plus’ – come (roughly) 20 years after the launch of the first-ever commercially available smartphone.

The IBM Simon was no iPhone. It cost $900, weighed the same as half a bag of sugar and was primitive by today’s standards. Launched by US operator BellSouth in August 1994, it didn’t sell particularly well either; but it did set the template for the early “smart” phones by combining PDA functionality and early cellular technology. Nokia, Palm and BlackBerry would replicate this approach with much greater success later that decade.

Smartphones began selling in serious volumes during the 2000s and a pivotal moment occurred in 2007 with the launch of the very first iPhone. This was followed shortly by the rise of the Android smartphone operating system. The iPhone and the Android OS would trigger a period of rapid growth in the smartphone market, creating one of the fastest-growing consumer electronic segments of all time. Today the smartphone is changing lives and transforming businesses across the globe.

GSMA Intelligence has just published a major report tracking the growth of the smartphone market since the launch of the iPhone in 2007 and how it expects the market to develop over the next six years through to 2020. We like to think our smartphone data is a little different to those you see elsewhere: we track the number of smartphone connections registered on a mobile operator’s network (using operators’ reported data), which is not the same as smartphone shipments or sales (traditionally based on vendors’ performance). Doing things this way allows us to monitor the level of smartphone adoption compared to other device categories on the network, traditionally basic or feature phones, but increasingly data terminals such as tablets, dongles and routers (we exclude M2M connections for the purposes of this study).

So what do the numbers say? The study found that today smartphones have grown to account for a third of global mobile connections. That’s up from just under 5 per cent in 2007 – and it is still growing fast. By 2020, GSMA Intelligence expects smartphones to account for two out of every three mobile connections globally – or six billion of the nine billion mobile connections forecast by that time.

One key trend over the last few years has been accelerating adoption of smartphones in emerging markets, primarily a consequence of rapidly declining price points. The $50 smartphone is becoming a reality and it is this low-end segment that is expected to drive volume growth. The developing world today accounts for two in every three smartphones on the planet, according to the new study. It is predicted that by 2020, four out of every five smartphone connections worldwide will come from the developing world.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, China is the world’s largest smartphone market, having overtaken the US in 2012. There were almost 630 million smartphone connections in China in Q2 this year, a figure that should hit one billion by 2016. The US, Brazil, India and Indonesia make up the top five.

It is important to look at smartphone connections in the context of the market’s total mobile connections base. This gives an indication of the maturity of the local smartphone market, as well as the headroom for future growth.

By this measure, we can see that in large markets such as China smartphone penetration has only recently passed 50 per cent. However, in many developed markets, smartphone penetration is approaching the 70 to 80 per cent ‘ceiling’ at which growth tends to slow. According to the report, smartphone adoption is forecast to reach 75 per cent in Europe and North America by 2020. Some markets are there already: Qatar and UAE already have smartphone adoption rates above 80 per cent.

At the other end of scale, Sub-Saharan Africa currently has the lowest smartphone adoption rate worldwide, at 15 per cent, but is expected to be the fastest-growing smartphone region over the next six years as affordable devices become more widely available and mobile broadband networks are deployed across Africa.

This shift in focus to the developing world has major implications as the smartphone becomes key to connecting the billions of global citizens not yet connected to the internet. Many of the business models that kickstarted the smartphone market in the developed world, such as handset subsidies, are not viable in emerging markets. Instead, operators are looking at innovative ways to get these smartphone users onto the mobile internet, possibly in partnership with those offering local, relevant content.

The launch of a new iPhone is always a big deal. But it will be the emerging market smartphones that will have the greatest impact on our industry – and the world – over the next few years.