SINGAPORE: The Google Pixel 4a has finally arrived, adding another strong entry to a crowded mid-range smartphone market.
Mid-range smartphones have been the stars of COVID-19 pandemic, experiencing a 178 per cent boost in searches during this period – especially the iPhone SE and Oppo 3.
This is unsurprising as consumers have been more sensitive to prices.
Over the past months, countries all over the world have witnessed a weaker labour market, with more losing jobs, receiving pay cuts or seeing slower growth if at all in disposable incomes. There has also been a general decline in consumer confidence.
These trends have impacted smartphones. We’re stretching the lifespan of our current models or opting for cheaper alternatives even when we replace them.
According to tech research firm Counterpoint Research, the global mobile market plunged 15.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2020, in what was the industry's biggest year-on-year quarterly fall.
THAT GOLDEN AGE OF SMARTPHONE INNOVATION
The golden age in smartphone development is over. Once progressing at the same breakneck pace as its sales, smartphone innovation has reached a plateau with an overall slowdown in innovation across most aspects of performance and design.
Just six years ago, if you bought a new iPhone 6S versus an entry-level smartphone, you were buying a markedly different machine compared to an entry-level smartphone. The iPhone was jam-packed with features like 3D Touch, the most outstanding camera at that time, an improved touch ID, a faster processor, and a super sleek design.
But today, if you compare the latest premium phone with a "good-enough" alternative, that expected improvement in performance is much harder to spot.
Thanks to e-commerce platforms and price-comparison sites, we have all this information at our finger tips and can make a considered decision even after being wowed by seeing the latest iPhone at an Apple store.
Perhaps there’s also fewer of us to market to. After all, mobile penetration has reached over 154 per cent in Singapore according to the Department of Statistics, meaning a lot of us have two to three phones each.
Still, that number is likely to inch upwards. With greater need for remote communication, video-conferencing and the surge ahead of the gig economy, many Singaporean who didn’t use to have a smartphone will finally take the plunge. This segment tends to start with an entry model too.
LOYALTY MAKES SMARTPHONE PURCHASES STICKY
While iPhones have been the mainstay for most smartphone users over the past decade, the iPhone retention rate has come down by 15.2 percent compared with 2018. According to a survey by PC Magazine in 2018, users have moved from iOS to Android mainly because of better pricing.
The average selling price for iPhones is US$760 (S$1,043) in 2020. Even the cheapest model, the iPhone SE, costs US$474. In comparison, an average Android device only costs about half of that, with an average selling price estimated to be at US$258 in 2019.
READ: Commentary: Samsung’s new Galaxy S20 promises to be a game-changer. But it could struggle to do so.
In contrast, a Google Pixel 4a costs US$364, one third cheaper than its Apple equivalent.
But would people really switch to a Google phone? For customers of limited means looking at a downgrade, there are plenty of other players having a much stronger mindshare, like the Samsung Galaxy A51 or Mi Note 10.
The fact is when it comes to brand loyalty, Apple and Samsung are in a league of their own.
Apple remains the market leader in Singapore with a market share of approximately 33.6 per cent, a 4 percentage points decrease from last year. Four out of five best-selling models in the premium segment were From Apple.
But coming second and third are strong competitors Samsung and Huawei going after all price segments.
Years of hard work and billions of marketing dollars have paid off for them.
With a combined customer loyalty rate of 69 per cent, Apple and Samsung command more than twice the consumer allegiance attained by other players, according to a multinational survey by IHS Markit.
With this competitive bulwark built by Apple and Samsung, Google has long struggled to get consumers to notice its Pixel phone.
Google suffers from intense competition and had to battle over a few percentage points of market share. It’s not a recognised smartphone manufacturer in the way Apple and Samsung are.
In this context, the Pixel 4a clearly target consumers who are not committed to their phone brands.
HOW GOOGLE COMPARES TO OTHER BRANDS
However, even for those who don’t’ need the bells and whistles but just a good-enough phone at affordable price, it’s also hard to make a case for Pixel 4a unless you compare it with other lesser known brands.
Still, with the bigger Chinese manufactures like Shenzhen-based OnePlus coming in with flagship smartphone features at a mid-range price, the Pixel 4a doesn’t really match up on specifications.
For instance, the OnePlus Nord looks and behaves almost like any of the Chinese brands’ flagship models, but sells for less than half the price.
With the typical specs you’d expect from an average Android phone, Pixel 4a may not provide the best price–performance ratio in the eyes of many.
One factor that has played to Google’s interest, however, is the stewing US-China trade war. The restrictions placed on Huawei's access to the Android operating system have cast a long shadow over its latest launches in the international market.
Though there have been discussions about simple workarounds, inevitable user complexities and security concerns make a quick-fix elusive.
As mainstream users outside China are still not yet ready for a Chinese phone, this could be a window of opportunities for competing brands like Samsung and Google.
The 5G era is coming, which is a significant milestone that could help convince many consumers to finally upgrade their smartphones.
Google has announced that there will be a Pixel 4a (5G) modestly priced at about US$499 "in the coming months", which could be worth the wait.
Chong Guan is Associate Professor and Deputy Director at the Office of Graduate Studies, Singapore University of Social Sciences.