Apple clinches Q4 smartphone shipments top spot as US sanctions elbow Huawei out of the major league

It is official: Huawei is no longer a major smartphone maker after it fell out of the top five line-up of the biggest sellers in Q4. As for Apple? It is again at the summit, at least according to Canalys.

In total, Apple shipped 81.8 million iPhones worldwide during the three months ending 31 December, representing 4 per cent year-on-year growth and taking its market share to 23 per cent.

Total sales of all vendors’ smartphones reached almost 360 million, down 2 per cent, so Apple bucked the general downward trend.

Apple’s phone business typically enjoys a surge towards the end of the year as it rolls out new versions of the iPhone, while discounting older models. Still, there was cause for concern that Apple wouldn’t perform quite as strongly this time around, thanks to the pandemic’s one-two punch of depressed consumer spending and supply chain disruption. The latter resulted in the iPhone 12’s announcement being delayed from September to mid-October, and other models, including the Pro and Mini versions, only available after the mainline iPhone 12 hit shelves.

It helped that the iPhone 12 was a fairly substantial upgrade. While there’s barely a Rizla’s worth of difference between the iPhone XR and the iPhone 11, this latest refresh brought 5G capabilities, as well as other nice-to-haves like support for MagSafe accessories. Those who had been hanging on to their older devices finally had a reason to upgrade.

“The iPhone 12 is a hit,” said Canalys analyst Vincent Thielke. “Apple is better positioned than its competitors on 5G, being heavily skewed towards developed markets, and mobile operator sales channels. But it also made savvy moves behind the scenes to propel its sales and profitability.”

These moves included removing, er, unnecessary bulk from the iPhone’s packaging, allowing Apple to compensate for pandemic-related disruption to its logistics, claimed Canalys. Strange, we thought it was largely a way for Apple to profiteer.

“The omission of a power plug from the iPhone retail box, which reduces weight and size, is making logistics significantly more efficient, amid the ongoing high cost of air freight due to the pandemic,” Thielke added.

On the corporate side, Thielke pointed to “channel-centric growth initiatives” targeting small-to-medium businesses, which he said helped boost demand among enterprises.

Elsewhere in the market, Samsung saw the biggest drop, plunging 12 per cent year-on-year to 62 million.

Samsung usually leaves its annual Galaxy refresh to the start of the calendar year, effectively dissuading customers from upgrading during Q4, which explains its relatively lukewarm performance.

But what about China’s current mobile giants? Third placed Xiaomi recorded nearly 31 per cent growth, with shipments soaring to 43.4 million.

Xiaomi was well configured to handle the disruption of the pandemic better than some. As a relatively young brand, it prioritised online retail channels early on, and doesn’t have much of a brick-and-mortar retail footprint. This made it less vulnerable to lockdown. With most of its devices priced below $500, it wasn’t really affected by the reduced appetite for premium devices we’ve seen in the past 12 months.

OPPO and Vivo, both subsidiaries of BBK Electronics, also recorded growth of 15 per cent and 14 per cent respectively, shipping 34.7 million and 32.1 million units. Both firms are heavily grounded in the budget and mid-range sectors of the market, and are aggressively expanding beyond Asia. Although OPPO has been a presence in the European market for almost three years now, Vivo only started its debut in October.

And now onto the biggest loser in the quarter – Huawei. It dropped out of the top-five vendors for the first time in six years. It shipped 32 million devices across both the Huawei and Honor brands – almost half compared to the same period in 2019. The sales figures look set to plummet further this year, given its recent sale of the Honor brand, as well as its ongoing supply chain woes.

“Huawei dramatically receded in most markets as the result of the US sanctions,” said Canalys research analyst Amber Liu. Honor’s future, on the other hand, looks brighter, although Liu doesn’t expect it to be a major top-five player any time soon.

“[Huawei’s] decision to divest Honor, however, may prove vital, as Honor is not bound by the same restrictions and component supply is resuming,” she said. “Despite this, Honor has a colossal challenge ahead. It needs to redefine the brand, from young demographics to address both premium and mass market. It needs to extend its product range to compare to the breadth of Huawei.

“Most importantly, it needs to re-enter channels which are already signing multi-year ranging deals with competitors. For example, in critical channels like European network operators, the vendor onboarding process can take more than six months. For this reason, Honor is not expected to take substantial market share back in the near-term.”

Canalys’s figures coincide with the release of shipment data from rival analyst firm CounterPoint. The numbers largely match up, although CounterPoint took a more granular look at the market, identifying growth trends in smaller outfits. ®