Apple and Nokia Gain in Smartphone Sales

The numbers are out from market research houses, and the biggest winners for the first quarter of 2010 in smartphones were Apple and Nokia. Both companies saw their sales surge from the same period in 2009, and both gained market share, according to figures released Apr. 30 by Boston-based researcher Strategy Analytics.

The telecom research firm figures the global market for smartphones—handsets that support wireless e-mail, Internet access, downloadable apps, and often touchscreen- or stylus-based user interfaces—grew by a sprightly 50% vs. the first quarter of 2009, to 53.7 million units. That amounts to about 18% of overall handset unit sales, up from just under 15% a year earlier. Apple’s sales grew a dazzling 132%, to 8.8 million units, while Nokia’s grew an impressive 57%, to 21.5 million units.

Canada’s Research In Motion was no slouch, either: The BlackBerry-maker shipped 10.6 million units in the quarter, up 45% from a year earlier, giving it the No. 2 position overall in the category, according to Strategy Analytics. But RIM’s market share in smartphones slipped slightly to 19.7%. Finland’s Nokia commanded 40% of the market—up from 38.2% in the first quarter of 2009—and California-based Apple walked away with 16.4% share, vs. 10.6% a year earlier.

Of course, smartphones are still a relatively small (if profitable) part of the overall mobile phone market, where Nokia and the Korean giants Samsung and LG Electronics continue to dominate. Figures released Apr. 30 by researcher IDC show that the global market for all kinds of handsets, which run the gamut from high-priced devices with video and GPS navigation to lowly voice-and-texting models, surged a healthy 21.7% in the quarter, to 242.2 million units, vs. the same period in 2009.

IDC cautions that this isn’t a sustainable growth rate, given that last year’s first quarter—amid the depths of the global economic downturn—was one of the worst on record. Overall, IDC expects mobile phone shipments this year to climb by about 11% vs. 2009. But in an encouraging sign for mobile operators who have invested billions in building out third-generation (3G) networks that support faster wireless data connections, ABI Research said on Apr. 30 that for the first time in history sales of 3G-compatible phones in the first quarter of 2010 eclipsed those of earlier-generation (2G) devices.

Nokia didn't fare as well in the broader market as it did in smartphones: It shipped 107.8 million units in the quarter, up 15.7%, but it lost some market share, clocking in at 36.6% overall, compared with 38.4% a year earlier. Most of the difference owes to continued success by Samsung, which now has nearly 22% of the market (up from 18.9% a year earlier), and to gains by RIM. Samsung has boosted its distribution in developing markets and has lifted its average selling price with higher-end devices, while RIM has managed to expand its market beyond its core corporate clientele to a growing number of consumers— especially "text-crazy teens," as IDC puts it.

LG Electronics and the Japanese-Swedish Sony Ericsson joint venture both lost share, though LG held on to a clear No. 3 position. No. 5-ranked Sony Ericsson's unit sales fell a worrisome 27.6%, but it returned to profitability in the quarter after a stretch of losses and introduced a number of snazzy models, including the Xperia X10 and Vivaz, that could help it claw back market share and maintain or raise its high average selling price going forward.

Motorola, which turned in numbers that signaled something of a turnaround, nevertheless fell out of the top five for the first time in history. IDC figures that the "other" category, which includes Motorola, Apple, and dozens of smaller makers, grew slightly from 24.3% of the market a year ago to 25.3% in the first quarter. Motorola's results were boosted by an improved showing in smartphones—especially devices based on the Android operating system from Google. While noting that Motorola's overall cell phone sales fell by 43% year-over-year, researcher Rethink Wireless notes that Motorola's results "offered the most concrete indication yet that the firm's handset turnaround is underway."

Among the factors that could help Motorola are its growing success in the market for handsets based on Android. Equity analyst Mark McKechnie of Broadpoint AmTech says that Google appears to be "backing away from its own branded phone," the Nexus One. At the same time, Hewlett-Packard's acquisition of Palm signals that the computer giant could lessen its support for both Android and Microsoft's Windows Mobile in favor of the well-regarded WebOS operating system developed by Palm. The result, McKechnie says, could be that Motorola will emerge as "the leading Android vendor." If Android takes off, that could give Motorola an edge in the market, though analysts say it still needs to develop its global distribution.

Winning the battle for mobile phone market share and profits looks increasingly to rely on success in smartphones. Lower-end devices will still command the lion's share of the business, and in that regard Nokia, Samsung, and LG are still well positioned. But as Apple and RIM continue to gain, and as Motorola finds new footing in Android devices, the fight is far from finished. The next few quarters could chart a new path for the mobile phone industry and for the consumers around the world who continue to snap up handsets at a remarkable rate.

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