Mobile market forecasting: you can predict WHAT, but not WHO

There's been a lot of noise (like this) over the last few days about IDC's smartphone forecasts. The issue seems to revolve around how the 5 year forecasts from 2006 missed the growth of Apple (of course, it didn't exist) and Android (basically ditto), so how can the 2011 forecasts be relied upon out to 2016. Even a year or two ago they were forecasting that Symbian would dominate, which is now clearly not going to be the case. I'm very sympathetic to their plight. I've done more than my fair share of mobile forecasting at Yankee, Analysys Mason and now at Machina. However, it seems obvious to me that this is the problem that you run into as a market forecaster if you try to predict WHO (e.g. which companies or OSes or whatever), rather than WHAT (e.g. smartphones vs featurephones, number of subscribers, prepaid vs postpaid, ARPU).

There are a number of fairly predictable trends that will influence the WHAT: macro-economic trends, Moore's Law, market liberalisation, technology, regulation, competition etc etc. All of these change gradually (for the most part). Unfortunately, when it comes to predicting WHO, it comes down to individual decisions made by executives. Clearly the WHAT factors are also influenced by a multitude of decisions by the WHOs, but if company A makes a stupid decision company B can jump in and seize the opportunity, which tends to level things out. Every so often you do get a game-changer like 3's massive price reduction on mobile broadband to GBP15/month which effectively created a consumer market. Those things don't happen very often though.

My focus in the past has tended to be on forecasting things like subscriber adoption and ARPU. These tended to rely on some of the trends I outlined above. Every so often, however, clients would ask me to forecast individual operators. I generally said no, or attached the caveat that they were likely to be so wildly inaccurate as to be virtually useless. If a single person can make a single decision that completely invalidates your whole forecast (like Stephen Elop's decision to dump Symbian for Windows) then forecasting with any accuracy at all is impossible. So, forecasting the number of smartphones, or the number of subscribers or the revenue generated is do-able and worthwhile. Forecasting which OS or operator will dominate is basically impossible.

At Machina Research we're currently going through a long process of forecasting each of the constituent parts of the M2M market. Nowhere will we definitively predict which companies will dominate. We will offer some views on whether it will be operators or SIs or service providers, for instance, although the business models are almost too uncertain today for even that level of forecast. We'll never forecast at the level of individual operator. A single decision by an executive at Vodafone, Orange, Jasper or whoever could change their fate totally.