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Apple pips Samsung following ‘roller coaster’ year for the smartphone

By Shannon Williams
Thu 2 Feb 2017
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Despite concerns over the slowing global smartphone market, the holiday quarter of 2016 finished on a positive note with vendors shipping a total of 428.5 million units during 4Q16.

According to the latest data from IDC, 4Q16 experienced in 6.9% growth when compared to the 400.7 million units shipped in the final quarter of 2015.

For the full year, the worldwide smartphone market saw a total of 1.47 billion units shipped, marking the highest year of shipments on record, yet up only 2.3% from the 1.44 billion units shipped in 2015, the analyst firm states.

Large markets like China, the United States and Brazil all ended the year on a strong note, helping to keep worldwide volumes in positive territory.

"There's no question that 2016 marked a memorable year for the smartphone industry in many ways," says Ryan Reith, program vice president with IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers.

"This was a year that brought us the first down year for iPhone, yet Apple closed out the holiday quarter by surpassing Samsung for the top spot in the smartphone industry,” he explains.

“We also witnessed year-over-year declines in some emerging regions like the Middle East and Latin America where high growth was expected.

“To round it all off, we now have a three horse race at the top of the market as Huawei cracked the double-digit share mark for the first time ever,” Reith adds.

Anthony Scarsella, research manager with IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, says despite the changes that 2016 brought upon the market, including annual growth dropping from 10.4% in 2015 to just 2.3% in 2016, IDC expects a few turnarounds in 2017.

First, IDC is forecasting a rebound in iPhone shipments with the yet to be announced tenth anniversary iPhone. Second, the Middle East and Africa (MEA) and Latin America regions are expected to return to growth in 2017. And, as a result of the aforementioned as well as several other driving factors, growth in 2017 should improve slightly from 2016's results.

"As the two leading players continue to battle for the top spot, several Chinese vendors have solidified their position as valid contenders," says Scarsella.

"The top three Chinese vendors (Huawei, OPPO, and vivo) are persistently applying pressure on Samsung within China thanks to a vast portfolio of affordable, well-built devices.

“Not only is this pressure coming at the low-end, but high-end devices like the P9, Mate 8, R9s, and XPlay6 haven proven viable options for consumers looking to upgrade or save money without sacrificing quality,” he explains.

“However, it is worth noting that despite the success of these brands within China, they will need to find growth beyond their home turf to eventually knock off either Samsung or Apple at the top,” Scarsella says.

Smartphone Vendor Highlights:

Apple reclaimed the top spot thanks largely to the success of the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. Despite a strong fourth quarter, 2016 marked the first full year of declining shipments for the iPhone with a 7% year-over-year drop. Apple shipped a record 78.3 million units in the fourth quarter, up 4.7% from the same quarter one year ago. Although the iPhone 7 did not feature a drastically different industrial design from its predecessor, it did bring yet another significantly improved processor, more robust camera, water resistance, and new color/finish options. Much like Samsung, all eyes will be on Apple's next flagship, and all signs point to something very special for the tenth anniversary of this iconic product.

Samsung dropped to second in the worldwide smartphone market with shipments declining 5.2% compared to last year. The Korean giant shipped 77.5 million units in 4Q16, down from the 81.7 million units shipped last holiday quarter. On the year, Samsung shipped 311.4 million smartphones worldwide, which was down 3% from the 320.9 million shipments in 2015. Despite the Note 7 debacle and growing pressure from Chinese vendors, Samsung still managed to find success with its S7 and popular J-series of devices in numerous markets. The challenging holiday quarter, however, did bring its worldwide market share below 20% for the first time in over four years, leaving no better time for the pending arrival of its next flagship product, the Galaxy S8.

Huawei retained the number three position while gaining worldwide market share in 4Q16. The quarter marked the first time the Chinese giant captured double-digit share with 10.6% of the total shipment volume. Huawei shipped 45.4 million units in the quarter, up 38.6% from the 32.7 million shipped in the fourth quarter of 2015. For the year, Huawei shipped 139.3 million units, up 30.2% from the 107 million units shipped in 2015. The P series and Honor sub-brand drove essential volume in China as well as other countries in Asia and beyond. With proven success in China and many European countries, Huawei now has its sights set on the U.S. Whether or not the U.S. market becomes a serious playing field for Huawei is yet to be determined, but the recent release of the Mate 9 in the U.S. has surely caught the attention of both Apple and Samsung at the high end, while Honor brand devices will continue to drive the mid-tier.

OPPO continued its push to reach the top of the market with its fourth straight quarter of greater than 100% year-over-year growth. OPPO shipped 31.2 million smartphones in the holiday quarter, which was up 117% from the 14.4 million smartphones shipped in 4Q15. The focus for OPPO over the past year has been international expansion outside of China and so far it has been successful at this. Beyond China, Southeast Asia and India have been the focal points for OPPO's growth in 2016 supported by intense marketing campaigns and new product launches. The company also began ramping up its presence in the Middle East and if momentum can pick up, a strong 2017 could be ahead.

vivo remained the number five vendor with 24.7 million smartphones shipped in the holiday quarter, which was up from the 12.1 million shipped last holiday season. Over the year, vivo shipped a total of 77.3 million smartphones, up 103% from the 38 million last year. The majority of the shipments continue to be in China, however, and much like OPPO, vivo has been extremely aggressive with its marketing in a number of countries in Asia as it looks to extend its global reach. 

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