An analysis of visits to the mobile phone comparison site WhistleOut suggests that the trend may already have begun.
This quarter, interest in Google’s Pixel phones increased by about 500 per cent, compared to previous quarters, according to WhistleOut’s figures.
The level of interest in the Pixel 3, accounting for little more than 5 per cent of WhistleOut’s “share of voice” metric, which measures when consumers are actively interested in a phone, is still low compared to the interest in Apple’s and Samsung’s phones, but it’s sharply improved on Google’s traditional 1 per cent share of voice.
Carriers leading the charge
Interest in Huawei phones likewise improved fivefold over the same period, from hovering at 0.5 per cent or less, to 2.5 per cent this quarter.
The brands that for years struggled to make inroads into the Australian market, dominated like few other markets by Samsung and Apple, are suddenly starting to get traction with consumers.
“If this is the beginning of a trend,” says Joe Hanlon, publisher at WhistleOut, “then the trend isn’t that consumers are turning away from Apple and Samsung. It’s that the carriers are.
“The carriers are now willing to spend marketing dollars on other brands, they’re willing to range those products on their shelves, and consumers are following their lead.
“We could see this trend continue into next year, if the carriers are committed to ranging products from other than Apple and Samsung, and giving them prominence in their advertising and on their store shelves.”
Vodafone’s chief commercial officer, Ben McIntosh, told The Australian Financial Review that he does expect the trend to continue into next year.
“2019 is not going to be a disastrous year for Apple and Samsung. I think they’re going to continue to be very strong. But I do think that 2019 will not be the year when you can instantly write off those other brands like we have in the past.
“There’s a definite, big increase in interest [in other brands] now. What’s happened in the last six months is there has been a raft of very high-quality phones launched from all brands, including Apple and Samsung, and it’s certainly sparked a lot of interest. A lot of people are now looking at different types of phones.
“Australians are suddenly saying ‘why am I sticking to the same phone I’ve had for years? Let’s have a look at something new’.”
Big players not going away
Still, not everyone is convinced the Australian public is ready to end its love affair with Samsung and Apple.
The telecommunications analysis company Telsyte reckons that more than 90 per cent of Apple owners and more than 80 per cent of Samsung owners plan to repeat their purchase, meaning they would only ever release their grip on the market slowly, if at all.
“We anticipate the increasing market shares of emerging smartphone brands will more likely be taking shares from brands other than Apple and Samsung in 2019,” said Telsyte senior analyst Alvin Lee.
What does seem certain, though, is that 5G won’t play a big role in any changing of the guard in 2019.
Showing off a 5G handset from the Chinese phone maker ZTE last week, as well as a portable 5G hotspot from Taiwan’s HTC, Telstra officials said that it would still be several years until Australian customers got the full benefit of 5G technology in their phones.
The first generation of 5G phones, expected to appear in the first half of 2019, will all use a technology known as “5G Non Stand-Alone” (NSA), which relies on the existing 4G network to establish connections between two parties, before the data is transferred using a mix of the 4G and 5G networks.
Channa Seneviratne, Telstra network executive, said that meant 5G NSA phones wouldn’t get one of the main benefits of 5G: the ability to quickly establish data connections.
On pure 5G (or “5G Stand Alone”) phones, such latency is expected to be 1 millisecond or lower, dramatically improving the responsiveness of applications such as gaming and web browsing, even when the high data throughputs of 5G aren’t needed.
But 5G phones won’t appear until 2020 or 2021, Mr Seneviratne said, and in the meantime 5G NSA phones will have latency more like 4G phones, some 50 times higher than pure 5G. Telstra was working to get some of the latency advantages of 5G across to 5G NSA phones, but it was early days for those experiments.
“We think it’s going to be better than 4G, but not as good as 5G,” he told the Financial Review.