Apple claims top spot in global smartphone market for first time

Shipments grow in Q4 after near two years of declines, and Huawei making a comeback in China

Apple's iPhone is the frontrunner in the global smartphone market for the first time after demand finally returned to a sector that has shrunk for almost two years.

According to shipment data from IDC, the long recovery showed up in Q4, with sales-out growing 8.5 percent to 326.1 million devices. This isn't the same as sales to consumers and business, but is an indication of the stock ordered by retailers and distributors in anticipation of end users' buying phones again.

The last time Samsung wasn't number one was 2010, says IDC, indicating a shift in power at the summit of the market and also intense competition in the Android sector.

For 2023, shipments declined 3.2 percent to 1.166 billion smartphones, with all of the top five manufacturers bar Apple and Chinese player Transsion reporting shrinkage. 2023 marks the lowest global shipment figure in a decade.

"Not only is Apple the only player in the Top 3 to show positive growth annually, but also bags the number 1 spot annually for the first time ever," said Nabila Popal, IDC research director. "All this despite facing increased regulatory challenges and renewed competition from Huawei in China, its largest market."

"Apple's ongoing success and resilience is in large part due to the increasing trend of premium devices, which now represent over 20 percent of the market, fueled by aggressive trade-in offers and interest-free financing plans," she added.

The rise of Apple was not the only challenge for Samsung, IDC reckons, but also the return of Huawei, which released the Mate 60 containing a 7nm system-on-chip that was manufactured by TSMC, as well as numerous Chinese vendors vying for a slice of the pie.

"Huawei is back and making inroads quickly within China," said the analyst. "Brands like OnePlus, Honor, Google, and others are launching very competitive devices in the lower price range of the high end. And foldables and increased discussions around AI capabilities on the smartphone are gaining traction. Overall, the smartphone space is headed towards a very interesting time."

The data from IDC chimes with the findings of Canalys, which calculated that Q4 global shipments grew 8 percent to 320 million. For the year, it estimates shipments fell 4 percent to 1.1 billion. It also placed Apple at the top of the sales-out tree.

"The market is heading the right direction, aided by improved holiday season demand," said Canalys senior analyst Toby Zhu.

He added that with "inventory pressure and global inflation continuing to ease, vendors can finally focus on product innovation and long-term strategy developments, laying down solid foundations for the year ahead. There have already been plenty of new flagship Android launches taking advantage of the on-device AI trend, from Google Pixel and several Chinese vendors, such as HONOR, OPPO, Vivo, and Xiaomi."

The challenge for Apple is to keep appealing to buyers in China, and Huawei is thought to be the biggest challenger on that front. Just when the US thought Huawei was running away with its tail between its legs.

Huawei still didn't feature in the top five biggest sellers, but who would write it off at this point? ®

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