Smartphone Sales Set to Top Feature Phones in 2013: IDC

China will again be the world's biggest market for smartphones in 2013, while India posts the greatest year-over-year growth.

In a sign of the growing popularity of smartphones around the world, global sales of the devices, made popular by Apple's iPhone and Google Android-based handsets, are poised to overtake sales of feature phones in 2013, the first such occurrence in the mobile phone market on an annual basis, according the latest "Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker" report from IT research firm IDC.

The decline in global prices for smartphones, along with the advance of 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) wireless networks and an increasing market strata of devices priced to target lower-income consumers, were cited as the major factors in the smartphone's rise to dominance.

The demand for the high-tech devices, which boast Web connectivity, high-resolution touch-screen displays and access to application stores, is shifting away from mature economies like those in Europe and the United States and to emerging markets like India and China, the report noted. China, which supplanted the U.S. last year as the global leader in smartphone shipments, is at the forefront of this shift, while emerging economies with growing middle classes are expected to fuel future demand.

"While we don't expect China's smartphone growth to maintain the pace of a runaway train as it has over the last two years, there continue to be big drivers to keep the market growing as it leads the way to ever-lower smartphone prices and the country's transition to 4G networks is only just beginning," Melissa Chau, IDC's senior research manager for the Asia-Pacific region, said in a statement. "Even as China starts to mature, there remains enormous untapped potential in other emerging markets like India, where we expect less than half of all phones shipped there to be smartphones by 2017, and yet it will weigh in as the world's third-largest market."

The report said China would "easily" remain the world's largest market for smartphones, specifically low-cost handsets based on the Android operating system and to a lesser degree Apple's iOS platform, although rumors continue to circulate that Apple is working on a lower-end version of the iPhone to target emerging markets.

In the U.S., IDC said it expects slower growth in the years ahead, thanks to market saturation; smartphone users constitute the majority of all mobile phone users in America. However, the U.S. still ranked second on IDC's list of the top-five markets for smartphone shipments.

"Underpinning its growth is the constantly shifting operating system landscape, in which resurgent BlackBerry and Windows Phone aim to gain salience against incumbents Android and Apple iOS," the report noted.

India's year-over-year smartphone shipment growth is projected to be the highest among the top countries by a wide margin, as the vast majority of the country's wireless subscriber base currently owns feature phones. In Brazil, which placed fourth, wireless service providers are offering greater subsidies to drive smartphone sales as the country rolls out 4G networks. In the United Kingdom, the size of the market and its wealth relative to much of Western Europe will nudge the country into the fifth-largest market for smartphone shipments.