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State of the smartphone industry - Q3 2014

We take a look at the data and figures for the third quarter of 2014 to analyse the biggest smartphone market trends this year.

Published onNovember 19, 2014

The time has come for us to dissect our beloved smartphone industry once again, to discern who has won the hearts and minds of consumers and which companies are struggling to adapt to our increasingly demanding tastes.

On the broadest possible scale, worldwide smartphone shipments are still increasing. Global shipments reached 324.4 million units in Q3 2014, up 27.9 percent on the previous year and up 9.6 percent compared with the previous quarter. A total of 271 million Android handsets were sold between July and September 2014.

As we saw earlier in the year, most of this growth is coming from the Asia Pacific and Central & Latin American regions, with a 35 and 27 percent YoY growth rate respectively. Africa is also set to become an increasingly important market, with smartphone shipments up 76 percent compared with last year. Western European and North American markets continue to remain slow, with roughly 6 percent yearly growth in both regions. To summarise:

  • Smartphone shipments totalled 324.4 million units in Q3 ’14, up 27.9% YoY
  • Africa and Middle East shipments reached a new high of 24.5 million last quarter
  • Asia and Latin America are driving the majority of growth, at close to 30% per year
  • Growth in Asia is proving particularly beneficial to local manufacturers
  • EU and North American markets remain mostly flat, a tough environment for established OEMs

Last quarter, Apple pinned some hope on appealing to existing Android consumers with its larger iPhone 6 Plus, while Android continues to appeal to a broader range of consumers. Let’s take a look at how the year has played out for the big smartphone operating systems.

BlackBerry has faded into insignificance over the past 18 months and Microsoft continues to control only a small portion of the market. Apple’s market share is looking increasingly compressed over the past year and is now stuck in the 12 percent range. The iPhone 6 launch has yet to have had a major impact on the company’s global appeal. Instead, the fourth quarter is usually where Apple sees its market share jump following a product launch, but a leap back to the glory days of 20+ percent seem like a long shot at this point.

Android appears to be suffering from a similar plateauing effect as Apple, as the big transition from feature phones to smartphones has been over for quite some time. The market is starting to look rather set in terms of operating system percentages, with manufacturers left to compete with one another from within the substantial smartphone market. This is where the figures start to become interesting.

As you could have probably guessed, despite all its recent financial issues Samsung still remains by far the largest individual smartphone manufacturer. Sales have seen a slight uptick in the third quarter of 2014, due to the launch of the well reviewed and recieved Galaxy Note 4. It is a little early to call an end to Samsung’s recent woes though, as this upturn will have to be sustained well into the New Year.

Apple’s slow upward trend continues. However, its small product portfolio still has a heavy influence over its cyclical sales and the peaks appear to be becoming more difficult to surpass as times goes on. The iPhone 6 is going to have to quickly prove more popular than the last generation if Apple hopes to avoid looking stagnated.

Samsung has seen its US market share decline from 37 to 26% in a single quarter

In the US, a particularly strong market for Apple, the company managed to pinch top spot from Samsung last quarter, which has seen its market share in the region decline from 36.8 to 25.9 percent in a single quarter. Apple’s share increased from 23.4 to 28.1 percent, suggesting that Samsung is not only losing ground to Apple in the US, but is also losing out to other Android manufacturers. Interestingly, LG shot up from 13 to 18 percent of the US market in the space of Q2 to Q3 2014.

Other large smartphone OEMs appear to be holding global shipments steady, but this means that many of them are missing out on the huge rates of growth to be had in Asia and Latin America. Alcatel, Lenovo, and Micromax are showing upward shipment trends, while brands like HTC and Sony look less exciting.

However, Xiaomi is this year’s big success story, appearing out of apparently nowhere at the end of last year to storm into the top 5 largest smartphone vendors in the world.  As you may have noticed, the Android marketplace is more diverse than ever this year.

The chart above tracks OEMs “larger than HTC”, which I consider to be a rather crude but surprisingly well suited benchmark of whether or not the company is a major player. Over the past 18 months the Android market has become increasingly competitive, with much of the new handset sales being split up between new nimble companies that have been quick to adapt to more local demands. The chart above neatly shows the increasing number of sales being eaten up by smaller companies, while Samsung is gradually being pushed into a smaller role.

A greater number of OEMs shipped more than 5 million units in Q3 '14

Overall shipments are up, but it is the smaller brands that are growing the fastest. The last quarter, particularly, has seen more OEMs than before surpass the 5 million units shipped per quarter mark.

If we turn to the fastest growing regions, such as Asia and Latin America as you can see from the first graph, we can see exactly where a lot of these smaller OEMs are picking up large smartphone orders.

Compared with North America, which is virtually a two horse race, Asia and Latin American market shares are much more diverse. Asian brands, like Xiaomi and Lenovo, are collecting large shipment numbers despite only operating in a limited number of countries. Xiaomi sells more units operating almost exclusively in China than Samsung or Apple can manage in North America or Europe.

Over the past 18 months the Android market has become increasingly competitive.

It will be very curious to see how Lenovo proceeds with their post Motorola acquisition plans, and whether they will attempt to bolster the Motorola brand or make Lenovo more of a name in the West. It’s likely the latter, rather than the former. Other brands like Alcatel have seemingly lost interest and traction in the US, while ZTE has been consolidating its base and forming solid relationships with carriers for some time.

The pressing question for 2015 and beyond is; can these growing Chinese companies upset the seemingly safe positions of Apple and Samsung in well-established and somewhat saturated markets like Western Europe and America? Would it even be worth the huge marketing and logistical investments?

My inclination is to say no, at least not through a direct effort anytime soon. Xiaomi has already ruled out a US rollout while it focuses on countries that better match its target audience, such an India and Brazil. Whether or not consumers in Western markets will come around to cheaper products is a different matter. Import businesses could help these budget oriented Chinese handset manufacturers find an increasing number of homes in the West, rather than Xiaomi launching a direct campaign. That being said, HUAWEI has expressed an interest in US success, but what company doesn’t.

Overall, 2014 is a story of continued smartphone growth, but it no longer appears to be a game where everyone is a winner. OS market shares appear to be settling down and big OEMs are struggling as a result. The bulk of the big growth is being gobbled up in Asia and there doesn’t appear to be any signs of this market slowing down yet.

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