Can unlocked phones save us from the Samsung/Apple duopoly? Not according to new stats from BayStreet Research, which finds that while unlocked phone sales are booming in the US, the most popular handsets are from Samsung.
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Samsung's $720 unlocked price for the Galaxy S9, which undercuts all US wireless carriers except T-Mobile, has boosted the unlocked share of the US market from 12 to 14 percent, said BayStreet's founding partner, Cliff Maldonado. Still, that's the biggest shift in the unlocked share of the market we've seen in a few years.
"Unlocked phones" are generally those sold outside carrier stores, which can be easily switched between carriers. The unlocked, direct-sales version of the Galaxy S9, like the Galaxy S8 and recent iPhones, supports all four major US carriers. But the vast majority of US smartphones are sold through carriers on monthly payment plans, often with no money down; for unlocked phones, consumers usually pay the full cost up front.
"[S9 sales at] carriers are down, but Samsung direct online is up really big. People are finally willing to buy the phone outright," he said.
So far, though, there's no sign Samsung's unlocked success is leading to Americans reaching out for a broader range of unlocked devices. A truly disruptively priced new flagship, like a $350 OnePlus 6, could upset the market, Maldonado said, but the latest rumors have OnePlus's new phone costing more, not less than previous models.
"Is it 12 to 14 [percent] and then it stops, or does it keep going? I don't know that," Maldonado said. "Anyone who comes out of the open market, even though we're seeing some nice inflection points, it's going to be a stretch," he said.
Is Anybody Buying Phones?
US smartphone owners are holding onto their phones for longer and longer now, because carriers are no longer heavily discounting phones to promote two-year contracts. Rather, consumers are paying on monthly equipment installment plans. When their installment plans end, they see their monthly bills drop, which doesn't give them an incentive to take on a new phone and another installment plan. According to Maldonado, Sprint customers now upgrade phones every two years, and T-Mobile customers take three years.
Carriers are willing to pay to steal customers from other carriers, but that leaves phone upgraders—and the phone makers who want to sell them devices—in the lurch.
"In a world where the carriers aren't focused on upgrades [but] on new adds, the handset guys lose," Maldonado said.
Phone sales could heat up again in 2019, Maldonado agreed, if carriers decide to push devices that support 5G. All four US carriers have said they'll be launching mobile 5G next year, and it will require new phones.
"Q2 is going to be a disaster for units [sold,]" he said. "There's going to be a lull in handset sales until the iPhone in the fall."