Android, Apple, Lenovo Smartphones Were Stars of Action-Packed Q4

Smartphone shipments during the fourth quarter were flat, but figures from Android, Apple and Lenovo told of dynamic changes.

Global smartphone sales during 2012's fourth quarter told several tales, according to Feb. 7 figures from Canalys.

Android was on 34 percent of the 438.1 million mobile phones that shipped during the quarter and, perhaps more impressively, on 69.2 percent of all the smartphones.

Samsung, aggressively dominating Android handset sales, grew 78 percent year over year, but Android's market share dipped 4 percentage points sequentially, as Apple with its iPhone 5 gained back lost market share. Quarter to quarter, Apple's share jumped from 15 percent to 22.1 percent.

The might of China's fast-growing mobile phone market was also on display. Not only did 73 percent of phones sales during the quarter go to China—versus 40 percent a year ago—but Chinese vendors Huawei, ZTE, Lenovo and Yulong all grew by triple-digit percentages. For Lenovo, which grew 216 percent year-over-year, it was enough to displace Sony and take the No. 5 spot in the list of leading global vendors.

Huawei's sales were great enough to enable it to leapfrog over ZTE, from fourth into third position.

In the overall mobile phone market, Samsung led, followed by Apple and Nokia, respectively.

In the smartphone market, Samsung led again, with shipments of 62.9 million smartphones and a 29 percent share of the market. Second-place-finisher Apple shipped 47.8 million iPhones, for a 22.1 percent market share, followed by Huawei, which moved 11.5 million smartphones for a 5.3 percent share; ZTE, with shipments of 10.2 million phones for a 4.7 percent share; and Lenovo, with a 4.4 percent share on 9.5 million smartphones.

Looking at sales by operating systems, the successes of Android and iOS were followed by BlackBerry, Microsoft and Nokia, with 3.5, 2.4 and 1.5 percent market shares, respectively.

"When we look at the whole of 2012, Nokia remained the number three smartphone vendor, shipping 35 million units, but Apple in second place shipped 101 million more handsets. First-placed Samsung shipped 74 million more than Apple—the gaps are colossal," said Canalys Principal Analyst Pete Cunningham.

Cunningham said that rising smartphone penetration around the world—smartphones represented 50 percent of phone sales during the quarter—offered the vendors lower down the list a "big opportunity."

Those vendors, he said, "must at the very least improve their portfolios, time-to-market and marketing, as well as communicate their differentiators. Microsoft, Blackberry and other new OS entrants, such as Mozilla, must make the OS switch as simple as possible and drive and localize their respective app and content ecosystems."

China has been a major focus for mobile device industry. Not only are sales in China making vendors—98 percent of Lenovo's smartphone shipments were to China—but hurting them. Apple's relative struggle to sell iPhones in China has been endlessly discussed and diagnosed as being due to its lack of a lower-cost device for that market and a deal with China Mobile, the country's largest carrier.

That said, Canalys analysts said the market in China is ripe for Apple—an inexpensive device for China Mobile's network would "open the flood-gates" for Apple, said China Research Director Nicole Peng—but suggested trouble ahead for thriving Lenovo.

"[Lenovo's] struggle to gain a foothold in markets outside of China means that it may be forced down the acquisition route—as it was with its PC business—hence the speculation about BlackBerry," said analyst Jessica Kwee, referring to reports that Lenovo is considering buying BlackBerry.

On Jan. 9 Lenovo introduced six new phones, saying that they'll debut in China before moving on to "select global markets." A popular thought is that Lenovo will try its hand in the U.S. market by offering at least one of the phones, likely the K900, which runs Android and features a 5.5-inch display.

Cunningham said that while vendors have devices and strategies in place for attacking the strongholds established by Samsung and Apple, he called the task, "daunting, to say the least."

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