In an industry with a cost leader and a price leader, is there room for others?
REVOLUTIONS in technology bring benefits to millions,
but the companies that make them happen do not always thrive.
Even when demand is booming, competition to meet it can be brutal.
Makers of telecommunications networks know this only too well.
They perform the unseen miracles that allow ever more people to talk, work and play on ever smarter devices just about anywhere,
but their rewards have been mostly meagre.
Merger and failure have thinned their ranks.
In 2009 Nortel, a Canadian equipment-maker, went bankrupt.
This year Motorola's wireless-network division was bought by Nokia Siemens Networks, a Finnish-German joint venture created in 2007.
France's Alcatel and America's Lucent merged in 2006.
None of these mergers has brought much success.
NSN has yet to make an annual profit.
On November 23rd it said it would shed 17,000 of its 74,000 workers and concentrate on mobile-broadband networks, for which demand is set to grow explosively, and on services,where it is relatively strong.
It had already sold a microwave-technology business; and on November 29th it announced the sale of another small unit.
Alcatel-Lucent reported falling revenues and negative cashflow in the third quarter.
Investors are said to be impatient with its boss, Ben Verwaayen.
Must all struggle?
All but two, it seems.
Telecoms equipment is a scale game,
says Richard Windsor of Nomura, an investment bank. Network-builders need scale to support the hefty fixed costs of research and development.
You can be either the cost leader or the technology leader.
If you're neither of those, you're in a spot of bother.
The technological pace is set by Ericsson, a Swedish company that scoops more than a third of global mobile-infrastructure revenues, according to Gartner, a research firm.
It boasts 27,000 patents and was part of a six-firm consortium that paid $4.5 billion for a load of Nortel's patents in July.
Anyone mobile phones or networks needs an agreement with us, says Hans Vestberg, its boss.
The cost leader is Huawei, a Chinese firm.
Its global market share went up from 4.5% in 2006 to 15.6% in 2010, reckons Gartner, despite the political obstacles it faces in America.
Even Ericsson feels the price pinch.
Its revenues have risen this year after falling in 2009 and 2010,
but its margins have been slimmer.
Mr Vestberg explains that Ericsson has been building new networks for mobile operators and modernising old ones.
That means winning open tenders and taking an initial hit to margins.
Mr Windsor says that the companies caught in the middle lack the margins either to invest on Ericsson's scale in R&D or to fight Huawei on price.
NSN was loth to compete on prices before Rajeev Suri became its boss in 2009, says Bengt Nordstrom of Northstream, a consulting firm.
Its market share is down to around a sixth, even with Motorola;
it inherited a quarter from its parents.
Now Mr Suri is taking an axe to costs, though he has not said exactly what he will chop.
He thinks others will also have to narrow their ambitions.
Life will get no easier for those squeezed between the Swedes and the Chinese.
Ericsson's scale and technical edge are handy when, say, talking to mobile operators wanting to handle lots of data faster and without interference.
And for those for whom cheap kit is paramount, Huawei will still be hard to beat.