That could be good news for some of Samsung's suppliers, and perhaps -- depending on how one of Samsung's planned moves fares -- for the cause of smartphone innovation.
Earlier this week, Samsung Electronics (SSNLF) CEO DJ Koh stated this week that his company will aim to bring cutting-edge technologies to its Galaxy A mid-range phone line. He added that the first mid-range phone to reflect this strategy change will arrive later this year.
Also disclosed by Koh: A foldable Samsung smartphone, something the company has been trying to develop for some time, is on the way. A launch date wasn't given, but Koh suggested details about the device will be shared at Samsung's November developers conference.
"In the past, I brought the new technology and differentiation to the flagship model and then moved to the mid-end," Koh said. "But I have changed my strategy from this year to bring technology and differentiation points starting from the mid-end."
It's best to maintain a sense of perspective regarding Koh's remarks about future mid-range phones, and what they might imply for Samsung's high-end phone efforts. After all, the company is less than a month removed from unveiling the Galaxy Note 9, which -- in addition to packing a high-end display, processor and cameras, as well as plenty of RAM and flash storage -- sports a $999 U.S. starting price. And the company appears to be hard at work on developing Galaxy S10 phones that feature high-end specs and are likely to be priced accordingly.
Still, Samsung does now seem keen on adding some unique features to mid-range phones -- perhaps with an eye towards the kinds of feature that would appeal to emerging markets users for whom smartphone might be their only computing device. Possibilities include giant displays (6.5 inches or larger), oversized batteries (capacity above 4,000mAh) and the kind of storage capacities one normally associates with high-end devices.
Making such moves wouldn't prevent Samsung's high-end phones from continuing to be differentiated via features such as processor speed, camera/display quality and (in the case of the Galaxy Note line) stylus support. At the same time, it would put Samsung on better footing to deal with Chinese OEMs that have been taking quite a lot of low-end and mid-range share.
Research firm IDC estimates Samsung's smartphone unit share fell to 20.9% in Q2 from 22.9% a year ago, and that its shipments fell 10.4% to 71.5 million. It also estimates China's Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo collectively saw their share rise to 33.7% from 25.2%. On Wednesday, Huawei kept up its mid-range pressure on Samsung by unveiling the Honor 8X and 8X Max at Berlin's IFA trade show; the phones respectively sport 6.5-inch and 7.1-inch displays and iPhone X-like notches.
IDC believes Apple, which reported its iPhone unit sales grew 1% in the June quarter to 41.3 million, only gained a tiny amount of unit share. However, with Apple's iPhone average selling price (ASP) rising by $118 to $724, the iPhone X appears to be helping Apple take share from Samsung on the high-end. Three new iPhones, including a pair of iPhone X successors, are expected to be unveiled at a Sep. 12th event.
Though it's worth noting that pulling this off requires overcoming many technical challenges, a foldable phone -- a concept that Apple also seems to be researching -- could eventually put Samsung on stronger high-end footing. And just as importantly, it could provide a needed lift to a high-end smartphone market that (although experiencing decent ASP growth) is seeing little to no volume growth amid lengthening upgrade cycles.
Depending on the specifics, Samsung's plans to launch a foldable phone and more feature-rich mid-range models could be good news for some mobile suppliers.
For example, since its materials sales rise when a display is larger or features a higher resolution, OLED materials and patent-licensing firm Universal Display (OLED) would benefit if Samsung used larger and/or higher-resolution OLED displays in its mid-range models, as well as from a foldable phone launch. And -- though Samsung tends to use its own DRAM and NAND flash memory within its phones -- memory suppliers such as Micron (MU) would benefit from Samsung's inclusion of more RAM and/or flash within its phones, to the extent that it boosts industry demand.
Samsung, which did quite a lot in prior years to take phablets and OLED smartphone displays mainstream, now seems to grasp that maintaining the course for its smartphone business is a recipe for additional share loss. And as the company, which is still the world's biggest smartphone maker in terms of units, tries to right the ship, there are bound to be some ripple effects.