So “Crackberry” has cracked. BlackBerry brought the world convenient mobile access to email, something so addictive that it gained the drug-inspired sobriquet. Now a business worth some $80bn at its peak in 2008 is now worth less than $5bn, if the present private bid for the company goes through. It changed the way we live, but as so often happens, innovation has not been enough to generate sustained commercial success.
It is a fascinating story, which will be chewed over in business schools for years to come. But it is also part of a wider story about the ways in which the communications revolution is changing power relationships in the world economy.
Last month Gartner, the research organisation that specialises in the communications industry, revealed that sales of smartphones had passed those of regular phones for the first time. In the second quarter of this year we bought 225 million smartphones, out of a total of 435 million. There are now six billion mobile phone contracts in the world, out of seven billion people – more than the four-and-a-half billion with access to a working loo.
Mobile phones, and now smartphones, have seen a faster take-up than any other technology: faster than television, far faster than cars, faster even than the Internet. As such it has several unusual features. For a start, this is a demand-driven revolution, rather than a supply-driven one. We don’t have to be told by advertisers that this is something we want when we don’t really need it. Second, the technological lead that any company can sustain is extremely fragile. Nokia was the world’s largest phone maker but has seen a collapse in its market share and been forced to sell that bit of its business. Currently the smartphone business is dominated by Samsung and Apple but that lead could be overturned in a few years. This is utterly different from just about every other area of the corporate world, where once a strong market position is achieved, it is takes a long time to be dislodged from it.
Third, this is the first set of technologies where North America and Western Europe do not dominate the market, even in its present still-early stages. The top six markets are China, India, the US, Brazil, Russia and Indonesia, in that order. This is a technology where the markets are led by the BRICs.
That leads into the most interesting and important debate about the future balance of the world economy. Here are a set of technologies developed in the West: BlackBerry are just one of a number of companies whose innovations and commercial zeal have got us where we are now – Apple, Facebook, Google, Vodafone and so on. The rest of the world has adopted what we in the West created. Naturally there has been innovation elsewhere too, as the Samsung-Apple patent war shows. It may sound harsh, but basically the emerging world has grabbed our technologies, sometimes developing them, but often directly copying. Their economic success (which I much admire) has been built by their brawn, but on the ideas of our brains.
That raises a host of issues, of which from the emerging world perspective the most important is: can the BRICs get beyond middle-income status? Since technology is universally available, maybe countries’ economic progress will be distinguished by the quality of their human capital and the solidity of their social structures.
And the big issue from the developed world perspective? Well how do we maintain our lead, when everyone else can chase along so fast behind us?
What this US housing boom might bring
Print the money and it has to go somewhere. We in the UK fret about the unaffordability of housing and the need to increase the supply of new homes. But even in the US, where supply is less of an issue, house prices are booming. The annual rate of US house inflation is currently 12.3 per cent, according to the Case-Shiller index published yesterday.
In the US, as here, the boom in prices has underpinned consumer demand and boosted the turnover in existing homes, but as yet has only just begun to generate new housing starts. As you would expect. The question is will this continue and, if so, what implications are there for monetary policy? Was the Fed wrong not to start tapering down its monthly purchases of Treasury securities?
Well though prices were up in these latest figures, the pace seems to be easing. Long-term mortgage rates are rising – up 1.3 points to 4.4 per cent. So in a way the market is leading the Fed in tightening policy instead of the other way round. The big thing to watch, and most relevant to us here, is whether house prices pick up through the autumn. If they do, the pressure on the Fed to tighten will become irresistible. If our own housing market carries on climbing, ditto.