Is the Smartphone Market Really Saturated?

Apple's growth opportunities have vanished, argue some Apple stock critics. But is this really the case?

Jan 8, 2014 at 11:30AM

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iPhone 5c

The bear case against Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) typically suggests that the smartphone market is quickly becoming saturated, and Apple's business, which relies heavily on iPhone sales (52% of revenue in its fourth quarter), will suffer accordingly. But is this really the case? New data from GSMA Intelligence compiled and organized by Asymco's Horace Dediu suggests that smartphone growth is far from over.

Global saturation in smartphones is far off
All the talk of the saturation of the smartphone market, Dediu explains, is largely related to a point of inflection in the growth rates in the North America and Western Europe markets. Importantly, however, these markets account for just 11% of the world's population.

Extrapolating from GSMA Intelligence's reported trends, Dediu suggests that global growth in smartphone adoption may not start decelerating until 2017.

Importantly, reaching this point of inflection in growth doesn't automatically signal the beginning of the decline of smartphone sales. If this was the case, Apple investors could be in for some trouble. After growth decelerates, there is still growth -- albeit at declining rates. Further, Dediu's insights suggest that it could be another decade before the smartphone market reaches saturation. And what happens after market saturation? Sales will be dependent on cycles of replacements.

But if growth is slowing in North America and Western Europe, where will growth come from next? Central and Eastern Europe, followed by the Asia Pacific region, and then finally (though several years away before growth really takes off) Africa and Middle East adoption.

What's new?
Though it's really no surprise that adoption in developing countries will come later than adoption in developed markets, the perspective is useful. For instance, Apple's stock is basically priced for zero growth beyond the rate of inflation. Though Apple's rate of adoption will undoubtedly differ from the industry's smartphone adoption curve since its phones cost considerably more, this data is comforting for Apple investors since it suggests that much of the world's population is still very early on the adoption curve.

Even more, Apple's recent deal with China Mobile has positioned Apple strategically to take advantage of one of the world's largest markets, one that is lagging the North America and European markets in smartphone adoption. As the world's largest carrier, only 24% of China Mobile's customers use 3G.

If there's still plenty of growth left for Apple's iPhone business, the only reason Apple really would deserve such a conservative valuation would be because its gross profit margins are expected to decline. But that doesn't seem to be the case either. Though Apple's gross margin has fallen significantly from its peak above 45%, the decline seems to have stabilized recently.

Trading at just about 13.6 times earnings with plenty of growth ahead in the smartphone market, there's no reason for Apple investors to be worried about the company's prospects -- especially with global smartphone sales still growing robustly.

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Fool contributor Daniel Sparks owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and China Mobile. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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