Is the era of flagship phones over?

The mid-segment rises

by: - Last updated on: December 27th, 2019

When Counterpoint Research recently released the names of the ten phone models which had sold the most in the third quarter (Q3) of 2019, many people (us included) were surprised. For, the entire list did not feature a single flagship device from any brand. The only devices that came close to the “flagship” definition were the iPhone XR, the iPhone 11 and the Huawei P30, and even they were second fiddles to the main flagships – the iPhone XS, the iPhone 11 Pro, and the Huawei P30 Pro.

There were no REAL flagships in the top ten.

And it is not as if there were no flagships released in this period. The third quarter of 2019 covered the period from July 1 to September 30. This period saw the Galaxy Note 10, the iPhone 11 Pro, the OnePlus 7T Pro and the Pixel 4 being released globally.

flagships 2019
Image: AndroidPit

None of them – yes, read that again, NONE OF THEM – made the top ten. There were not even any “older” flagships in the top ten list, which comprised three devices from Samsung’s Galaxy mid and low segment A series, three from Oppo’s similarly targeted A series and Xiaomi’s super affordable Redmi 7A, apart from the three premium devices we mentioned earlier.

The phone that topped the charts was actually the iPhone XR. Some would say that this is a result of its having received a significant price cut. While that is certainly true, what cannot be denied is that the XR has been the bestselling phone in the world since Q4 2018, which is remarkable when you consider that it received a price cut only in early 2019. Indeed, 2018 seems to have been a totally different era with the very expensive iPhone X (which was priced close to USD 1000) being the most popular phone of the year by some distance.

Some would say, “well, shouldn’t mid-segment and lower phones sell more than flagships? They cost a whole lot lesser, and there are more people with lesser money than rich ones.” Well, logical though that sounds, that is often not the case. The highest selling phones in the world have generally been premium placed flagships, including the likes of the Moto RAZR and the iPhone. And that’s because they are more aspirational and stay in circulation for far longer than their mid-segment counterparts.

And that is what seemed to changing this year.

In 2018, the iPhone XS and XS Max initially outsold the iPhone XR, even though the XR was relatively lower priced than them. However, in Q3 2019, the iPhone 11 outsold the more expensive iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 Pro Max, at least in the very quarter of their launch. Apple’s great rival Samsung also found neither of its S series or Note series making the top ten, with the spotlight instead being hogged by the decidedly mid-segment Galaxy A50.

Counterpoint in its report itself stated that there had been “five flagships devices in the top 10 of Q3 2018 but only three this year.” And truth be told, even those three were not top of the line flagships, but more affordable variants. The report says that the decline in a number of flagships could be the fact that “premium segment features are trickling down to the mid-segment at a faster rate.” It goes on to that because of this, “mid-tier devices therefore often offer an excellent value proposition compared to older flagship models.” And this has been particularly true in 2019, which has seen mid segment get cameras and displays that are comparable with not just slightly older flagships but even current ones.

In simple terms, the gap between the premium and mid-segment devices is fading in terms of perception. And many brands are actually showing signs of focusing more on mid-segment offerings in terms of attention than their premium ones.

Motorola perhaps had been one of the first brands to follow this path with its mid-segment Moto G devices getting more attention than its better specced X (and later Z) series. This model has been adopted to an extent by Xiaomi in India, which has in recent years let is mid-segment Note series of devices grab more limelight and has indeed not launched many of its premium and flagship devices at all in India and other markets. Samsung’s decision to make its A series of devices more affordable also seems to signal a step back from its more premium initial ambitions. Interestingly, the brand that made a move in the opposite direction (going from high end to premium), OnePlus, finds no mention in the list (not that it has been a constant member of the list).

There is also a feeling in some quarters that flagship devices, particularly in Android, are no longer the super-exclusive devices that they were a few years ago, and have lost their sheen. Great design, cameras, loads of RAM, and displays are no longer the preserve of phones that cost more than USD 500, but can be found at half that price. In fact, the only area where flagships can hold a clear edge over their mid-segment counterparts is in terms of super high-end processors but in an era when a mid-segment chip can run Call of Duty, Asphalt and PUBG, that is not really a massive edge.

So, is it the end of the flagship smartphone era? It is too early to say, but the fact that the iPhone 11 actually outsold the iPhone 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max, and that the highest selling Oppo device came from its A series rather than the Reno one, would seem to indicate that the funny feeling that many top-end flagships might be experiencing as the year comes to an end could be a sinking one!

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