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With Mobile World Congress fast approaching, we take the temperature of the smartphone market, and flag up some of the product announcements and launches to look out for.
The history of mass-market computing has seen the focus shift successively from desktop PCs to laptops, to tablets and smartphones, with ever-smaller form factors quickly matching or surpassing early examples of their predecessors in terms of processing power (if not fitness for purpose for certain types of screen- or keyboard-dependent task).
That's why consumers and, increasingly, business users spend a lot of time considering the merits of different smartphone platforms, vendors and mobile operators. It's also a fast-moving market, which is why, not long into the smartphone era, corporate IT departments were facing the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) problem, as users rebelled against dull-but-worthy company-specified phones that were well behind the consumer cutting edge.
According to analyst firm IDC, just over 1.3 billion smartphones were shipped in 2014, a growth rate of 27.6 percent — impressive, but less than 2013's 40.5 percent. Part of this slowdown, which is expected to continue through 2015, is due to mature markets becoming dependent on replacement purchases from leading vendors such as Samsung and Apple. Growth opportunities — the so-called 'next billion' smartphone users — are concentrated in emerging markets, where low-cost devices, particularly from Chinese vendors, will increasingly challenge the market leaders.
Here are IDC's preliminary figures for 2014, with 2013 numbers for comparison (units in millions):
|Vendor|| 2014 |
| 2014 market |
| 2013 |
| 2013 market |
| Year-on- |
|Samsung|| 318.2 ||24.5%||316.4||31.0%||0.6%|
|*Lenovo + Motorola||96.5||7.4%||58.4||5.7%||65.4%|
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The fourth quarter of 2014 saw Apple deliver record sales figures thanks to the success of the bigger-screen iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, which propelled it to a near-tie with Samsung for first place (74.5m versus 75.1m units), adding another interesting dynamic to the 2015 smartphone market.
The chart below, from Statista.com, shows the waxing and waning of leading smartphone vendors' fortunes over the last five years. In the fourth quarter of 2009, for example, Nokia had a worldwide market share of 38.6 percent and was the leading smartphone manufacturer, with RIM (BlackBerry) in second place; note also the increasing presence of Huawei and Lenovo over the last two years:
Global smartphone shipments from 4th quarter 2009 to 4th quarter 2014, by vendor (in million units)
As far as smartphone operating systems are concerned, it's a two-horse race with Android a clear leader over Apple's second-placed iOS. Here's the previous year's-worth of market share figures, as estimated by Statcounter:
Although such browser-based numbers should be treated with an appropriate degree of caution, it's clear that the smartphone market currently is no place for a triumvirate. Whether Microsoft's forthcoming Windows 10 for phones, or one of the other also-rans — a resurgent BlackBerry, or Canonical with its Ubuntu Touch/Ubuntu 15.04 OS, for example — can make an impression in 2015 remains to be seen.
As for the market leaders, the latest version of Android ( 5.0 Lollipop) saw a significant redesign under the 'Material Design' banner and has become more enterprise-friendly thanks to the Android Work program, which keeps business data secure and separate from personal information on your smartphone. Apple's iOS 8 was notable for running on bigger-screened devices and introducing new functionality like the HealthKit and HomeKit APIs and enhanced between-app collaboration.
Leading vendors: upcoming highlights
At the top end of the market, Samsung's next flagship smartphone, reportedly the Galaxy S6, is expected to be unveiled at the company's March 1 Unpacked event at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. Samsung will be hoping that attractions such as an Edge version with curved screens on both sides will help to reverse the recent slide in its market share — particularly in the US, where it has lost ground to Apple.
Apple is still riding high on the success of September's 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus, and we're not likely to see any significant developments until the autumn. If previous conventions are followed, Apple will release similar-looking designs with upgraded internal components, called the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus respectively. Any number of Apple-watching sites will keep you up to date on the ebb and flow of the rumoured upcoming features.
Huawei, the leading Chinese smartphone vendor in 2014 (although pipped for third place by the combination of Lenovo and Motorola in Q4), is expected to release multiple new Android models at MWC, across the high-end Ascend Mate and P series, the mid-range Honor series, and the entry-level Ascend G and Y series. Comprehensive, good-quality product coverage at competitive prices is an example of what market leader Samsung is up against — primarily in China, but increasingly worldwide.
Another Chinese company, Lenovo, is making ever-greater inroads on the worldwide smartphone market, thanks to a strong position in its home market and the $2.91 billion acquisition of Motorola Mobility in October 2014. Within days of announcing the availability of the flagship Moto X in China, for example, Lenovo clocked up a million reservations. A highlight at MWC is expected to be the unveiling of the high-end Vibe Z3 Pro, reportedly featuring a 5.5-inch 1,440-by-2,560-pixel screen, Qualcomm's flagship 64-bit 8-core Snapdragon 810 SoC, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage.
LG had notable successes with the G3 and curved-screen G Flex last year, and announced a successor to the latter, the G Flex 2, at CES in January. Current rumours suggest we won't see the new flagship LG G4 announced at MWC in March, with a May launch more likely.
Notable launches and announcements to look out for from other vendors in 2015 include: Microsoft's Nokia Lumia 940, which should be the first smartphone to run Windows 10; the HTC One M9, which is expected to be unveiled at MWC; an updated roadmap from BlackBerry at MWC; and more competitive activity from Chinese manufacturers like ZTE, Xiaomi and OnePlus, whose second-generation OnePlus Two is expected to launch in Q2 or Q3.
Stay tuned for a roundup of the 2015 Mobile World Congress after the dust has settled in March.