Apple edges out Samsung as top smartphone vendor

Thanks to iPhone 12 sales, Apple won the fourth quarter with the highest number of shipments among global smartphone vendors, says Canalys.

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Image: Apple

Apple ended 2020 with a big boost in smartphone shipments courtesy of the iPhone 12.

Based on a report released Thursday by research firm Canalys, Apple shipped its most ever smartphones in a single quarter with 81.8 million units, a gain of 4% from 2019's fourth quarter. At the same time, the company's smartphone market share rose to 23% from 21%, pushing it into first place in the worldwide smartphone arena.

Though Apple no longer parses out actual unit sales for its products, iPhone revenues last quarter jumped to $65.6 billion versus $55.6 billion in the prior year's quarter.

SEE: iPhone 12: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Calling the iPhone 12 a hit, Canalys analyst Vincent Thielke said that Apple is better positioned on 5G than its rivals as it's heavily slanted toward developed markets and sales through mobile carriers.

"But it also made savvy moves behind the scenes to propel its sales and profitability," Thielke added. "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. And it also implemented channel-centric growth initiatives to target SMB customers, which have bolstered demand for its entire range of iPhones."

Samsung saw its fourth-quarter smartphone shipments drop by 12% to 62 million from 70.8 million for the prior year's quarter, Canalys reported. At the same time, Samsung's global smartphone market share dripped to 17% from 19%. The overall results of both companies pushed Apple to outpace its arch-rival for the quarter.

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Image: Canalys

Rounding up the top five global smartphone vendors last quarter were Chinese vendors Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo, according to Canalys. All three increased their shipments and global market share for the period. China-based Huawei, which had been on a winning streak, has been hurt by US sanctions, putting a dent in its global shipments.

The fourth-quarter analysis from research firm IDC differed in key ways from that of Canalys. IDC also put Apple in first place and Samsung in second but followed with Xiaomi, Oppo, and Huawei. The firm's numbers were also different as it pegged Apple's iPhone shipments at 90.1 million last quarter and gave Samsung a 6.2% gain in shipments, hitting 73.9 million from 69.5 million in the prior year's quarter.

Overall smartphone shipments for the quarter fell by 2% to 359.6 million from 368.6 million, according to Canalys, but rose by 4.3% to 385.9 million from 369.9 million, according to IDC.

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Image: IDC

Why do the results differ, often dramatically, between these different research firms? Each firm uses its own particular methodology to calculate its figures. Further, the analysis is typically based on preliminary data and estimates, so the actual, final results may differ as well.

With the coronavirus taking a toll on individuals and businesses for most of 2020, what does 2021 look like for the smartphone industry?

Canalys senior analyst Ben Stanton sees some concerns but mostly bright spots ahead as vendors have adapted to the COVID-19 lockdown and quarantine.

"The second wave of COVID-19 has taken a huge toll, but unlike the first wave, the industry was braced for impact," Stanton said in a press release. "Online fulfillment capacity has already been scaled, vendors are experienced at virtual launch events, and important channel meetings, such as device range reviews, are now comfortably done in a virtual setting."

Looking ahead, Stanton believes the coronavirus vaccines will boost confidence among businesses this year. However, there will be some economic side effects as government stimulus payments fade and new strains of the virus trigger concerns. Still, the analyst sees positive sentiment in the smartphone industry, leading to a rebound after a 7% decline in 2020.

At IDC, Ryan Reith, program vice president for the firm's Worldwide Mobile Device Trackers unit, called the recovery of the smartphone market and supply chain impressive. Though most of the world is still in lockdown mode, smartphone sales have steadily rebounded.

"This illustrates the importance of smartphones in everyone's life and provides a strong foundation for market demand," Reith said. "As the world progresses towards a post-pandemic environment, IDC believes demand will grow and the market recovery will accelerate."

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