Smartphone Sales Up, but So, Too, Is Competition, Says Gartner

Smartphone and mobile sales rose in the third quarter, but these were balanced out by increased competition, stagnating average selling prices and gray-market devices, resulting in a flat performance compared to a year earlier. While many people are awaiting new phones based on Android, additional competition may dampen expectations.

Worldwide, both smartphones and mobile phone sales were up in the third quarter of 2009, but stagnated selling prices, as well as gray-market sales, prevented overall market performance from surpassing the third quarter of 2008, according to a Nov. 12 report from Gartner.

Apple overtook Research in Motion in Western Europe, smartphone sales were in excess of 41 million units - an increase of 12.8 percent from a year earlier - and overall mobile phone sales rose 0.1 percent from a year earlier, totaling 308.9 million units in the third quarter.

"The third quarter of 2009 saw the announcement of many new mobile devices, including several Android smartphones ready for the holiday season in the fourth quarter, but hardware commoditization and the growth in open platforms, will make it harder for them to stand out," said Carolina Milanesi, research director a Gartner, in a statement

"Meanwhile," Milanesi continued, "the channel slowed its inventory-reduction efforts, so while some sales volumes increased, average selling prices (ASPs) stagnated. We expect pressure on ASPs to continue into 2010."

Following on the idea that as manufacturers adopt standard software platforms, they risk losing the ability to differentiate themselves, the report states that manufacturers are developing unique users interfaces as a way to stand out. The Motorola Cliq, for example, features MotoBlur, which syncs contact information, photos, Facebook updates and more. And the HTC HD2, likewise, offers what HTC calls "Sense," and is ultimately about customizing the phone and improving the user experience.

Gartner reports that only a handful of the holiday-timed Android devices launched in time to affect the third quarter, and so its market share remains at 3.5 percent. Windows Mobile 6.5 also arrived in October, and so was too late to have an impact on third-quarter results.

Among the top five worldwide smartphone manufacturers, all but Nokia saw market share increase. Second-place Research In Motion sold 8.5 million units, upping its market share from 15.9 percent a year earlier to 20.8 percent in the third quarter of 2009. Third-place Apple sold 7 million iPhones, jumping from 12.9 percent to 17.1 percent market share, and fourth-place HTC rose from 4.5 percent to 6.5 percent market share, selling 2.7 million units during the quarter.

Samsung, in fifth place, sold 1.3 million units, boosting its market share from 3.0 percent a year ago to 3.2 percent in third quarter of 2009.

Market share leader Nokia shipped 113.5 million phones during the third quarter of 2009, which was down from 118 million in the same quarter the year before, dropping its market share from 38.2 percent to 36.7 percent.

"Nokia faced pressure at the high end from competitors' new smartphones, so even as it rolled the N97 out to more countries in the third quarter of 2009, its ASP remained flat quarter-on-quarter at 62 Euro [or approximately $93 U.S.]," states the report. "Nokia should have strong end-of-year volumes as a result of good mid-tier products like the 5530 and 5230, but consumers seeking to upgrade to a high-end device may look elsewhere over the Christmas holiday sales."

A Nov. 11 report from research firm Strategy Analytics showed Apple to be the most profitable handset vendor during the third quarter, surpassing long-time-champ Nokia.

Gartner reports that Apple's ASP is holding steady, and that - as Apple begins selling in China, as well as through one more carrier in the U.K. and in an additional 16 more countries - its fourth quarter will be even stronger.

"Mobile phone vendors must invest in their smartphone portfolios to benefit from the fastest-growing segment of the market and that which is most resistant to low ASPs," said Milanesi. "They should also focus on winning developers and carrier support which will both attract users."