Chipmakers have been using reference designs for decades and now they are starting to make their presence felt in the mobile market. According to a new report from ABI Research as many as two thirds of all smartphones shipped in 2019 will be based on reference designs.
The research firm estimates that more than a third of smartphones shipped last year was based on reference designs. The majority, 69 percent, was in the sub-$200 segment. ABI Research found that MediaTek and Qualcomm are leading the way in terms of smartphone reference designs.
Vanilla phones for white-box outfits and more
The white-box segment is slowly starting to resemble the vanilla PC craze of the eighties. Companies are rolling out their reference designs for smartphones and tablets, small vendors are using them to compete with big brands and for the time being the approach is working, at least in some markets and some market segments.
However, it’s not just the white-box crowd. Big players are turning to reference designs, too. Samsung, Huawei, ZTE, HTC, LG and even Nokia are using reference designs for certain products, namely cheap devices for emerging markets.
"These trends will take the competition to another level, forcing OEMs to make more compromises on reference design ownership. As a result, reference designs owned by chipset suppliers will gradually entrench to higher price points, making the smartphone market increasingly commoditized," said ABI Research practice director Malik Saadi.
No reference designs for high-end gear
ABI Research concluded that the shift to reference designs won’t have much of an effect on high-end devices. This market segment will remain dominated by big brands such as Samsung and Apple. However, other market segments should see more and more reference designs.
Although reference designs sound like a good way of levelling the playing field and allowing small manufacturers to produce relatively competitive devices without much in the way of R&D, the trend is also benefiting big brands. As they start to embrace reference designs, they will rob small players of their ability to introduce cheap reference designed smartphones and beat the big players to market.
ABI Research concluded that small vendors are at risk of losing their competitive edge as bigger outfits start producing the same devices using the same designs.