Party like it's 2014, if you can – that's the last time smartphone sales were this low

If not for Apple, this addition to this week's orgy of bad economic indicators would be even less pleasant

Sorry to bring you another item of news focusing on indicators of poor economic conditions, but analyst outfit Counterpoint Research has just revealed data that finds sales of smartphones have dipped to levels not seen since 2014.

Ahhhh 2014: the year in which Apple debuted 4G in the iPhone 6 and gave the world its first Watch, the Heartbleed flaw in OpenSSL gave us a glimpse of a future in which bugs had brands and widely-used FOSS projects could make the whole world stop to patch, and the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie introduced the audio cassette to a whole new generation. Around 300 million smartphones shipped during that year's third quarter – the same number that made it out the factory gate this year.

"Most major vendors continued experiencing annual shipment declines in the third quarter of 2022. Russia's escalating war in Ukraine, ongoing China-US political distrust and tensions, growing inflationary pressures across regions, a growing fear of recession, and weakening national currencies, all caused a further dent in consumer sentiment, hitting already weakened demand," said Counterpoint senior analyst Harmeet Singh Walia. "This is also adding to a slow but sustained lengthening of smartphone replacement cycles with smartphones becoming more durable and as technology advancement slows."

Only Apple has managed growth in this environment, helped by an earlier-than-usual iPhone launch that saw its market share reach 16 percent and shipments record two percent year-on-year growth.

Samsung could point to quarter-on-quarter growth, but its year-on-year shipments fell eight percent. The Korean giant did, however, chalk up record sales of its folding phones. That premium kit is where the fat profits can be found in the smartphone market, and finding them with its Galaxy Z and S ranges is Samsung's strategy

Brands dependent on mid-range handsets are doing it tougher, Counterpoint suggests, though the likes of Chinese phone-mongers Oppo and Xiaomi enjoyed a little bounce as their rivals quit Russia. Tricky conditions at home – where ongoing COVID-19 restrictions and intertwined economic uncertainties both bit – meant Chinese buyers remained reluctant to splash on new smartphones.

Counterpoint associate director Jan Stryjak predicted "further quarterly improvement in the coming quarter, although central banks' attempts to control inflation will further reduce consumer demand."

Rival analyst outfit IDC today reported the same low level of shipments and offered similar analysis but offered an alternative take on why premium kit is outperforming cheaper products.

"Developed markets that often sell more premium devices are faring better than emerging markets where smartphones sell for a fraction of the cost," said Ryan Reith, group vice president with IDC's Worldwide Mobile and Consumer Device Trackers. "We believe this is largely supported by the expansion of installment plans offered through telcos, retail channels, and even direct from vendors. Promotional activity around trade-in offers also supports that shift."

Reith reckons those tactics can't keep the market afloat forever. "As we look toward next year and beyond, if the global market is going to grow, it will need a strong recovery in emerging markets to make that happen," he said.

Which is not to say the news is all bad. Over a billion smartphones ship each year, vastly exceeding sales of PCs or any other endpoint device. And while 2022 is scary in all sorts of ways, we have at least been spared a standalone Guardians of the Galaxy movie.* ®

*Yes, we do know the Guardians made a substantial appearance in this year's Thor flick.

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