Android now Asia’s top smartphone, but how will SE Asian market develop?

Android has become Asia’s most popular smartphone operating system according to market research company GfK Asia.

“Our Q3 report shows that Android has recently overtaken Symbian as the most popular smartphone OS in the context of Asia as a whole, in both value and unit sales.”

Despite the lead change across Asia as a whole, Nokia (and its Symbian OS) still leads the pack in Southeast Asia although the gap is lessening:

While in Southeast Asia region however, Symbian has been the leading smartphone OS and continues its lead albeit gradually declining sales. Since the beginning of the year, Android, RIM and iPhone OS have been enjoying gains in the smartphone segment at the expense of Symbian OS. “With the myriad of mobile operating systems available in the Asia market right now, manufacturers have to look beyond hardware to succeed in this market.

Also announced, and of little surprise, is a continued growth in smartphone purchases with one in every five handsets purchased in Asia (July-September 2010) a smartphone. Clearly smartphones are being bought in greater numbers thanks to many reasons, including the growing awareness and usage of mobile internet and more competitive pricing.

The report leaves question marks over the Southeast Asia smartphone market. Here are some thoughts on the big four in the region – note this is for smartphone sales/usage and not all devices, an important distinction.

Nokia (Symbian)

While it is clear Nokia is losing ground, the Finnish handset maker has introduced a new range of smartphones, the C5, with a sizeable marketing push emphasising the device’s social media capabilities in a bid to tap into the region’s increasing use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media on the go. Nokia remains the region’s number one for smartphones and standard mobile phones – perhaps this past association with non-smartphones counts against the brand and pushes consumers to other devices when choosing a smartphone? Either way, it is fair to say that in many Southeast Asian markets Nokia’s products are considered less desirable than those from Apple and co.

BlackBerry (BlackBerry OS)

BlackBerry has huge support in Southeast Asia, most notably in Thailand and Indonesia, with manufacturer RIM recently announcing an Indonesian HQ to stand its ground in one of the world’s hottest mobile markets. Though it has a wide range of products, price-wise, it is worth noting that entry level BlackBerry devices are costlier than budget Android-smartphones. That said, in Thailand at least, the popularity of services like BB Messenger gives the devices a huge advantage in the marketplace.

iPhone (iOS)

Apple’s iPhone is, in my opinion, likely to see gains for a number of reasons. Firstly, its products are arguably the smartphone industry’s flagship and are regarded as the ultimately desired device across many Southeast Asian markets. While the price is prohibitive to many, there are now three (or more) types of iPhone available in markets which pushes down the cost of entry level iPhones and may, in turn, help increase iPhone ownership in Southeast Asia – although this does not affect sales, merely usage/ownership.

Android OS

Android has a huge and varied selection of devices, from entry level right up to iPhone-competitors. As a relatively new entrant it started from a far smaller number of users, so its percentage growth is always impressive. Android is fast gaining a positive reputation and association with smartphones (perhaps more than Nokia?) in Thailand, which is reflected in other markets and accounts for its growth.

The Future?

Manufacturers need to ‘look beyond hardware’, according to GfK, suggesting that feature-wise, smartphones are fairly evenly placed – as all will connect to the internet, allow social networking etc. Could apps be the crucial factor for success in Southeast Asia?

Personally, the success of BlackBerry in Indonesia and Thailand indicates that cost and choice (range) of product are the most influential factors. Android fares well and both and is in the most ideal position to grow but as a new entrant it remains to be seen how much it must grow to catch and overtake the competition? In the meantime it will be interesting to see if Nokia can maintain a lead in Southeast Asia despite decreasing smartphones sales.