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Smartphones outsell feature phones for the first time

people with mobile phones

The inevitable has happened. For the first time in history, smartphones have outsold feature phones.

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The main force driving the smartphone surge is the emergence of cheap Android handsets from the likes of Huawei, Lenovo and ZTE, something which has seen them displace traditionally strong players such as HTC and BlackBerry at the top of the smartphone ladder.

According to research company IDC, smartphone vendors shipped 216.2-million units in the first quarter of 2013, which marked the first time more than half (51.6%) the total phone shipments in a quarter were smartphones. The market grew 41.6% compared to the 152.7-million units shipped in the same quarter in 2012, but 5.1% lower than the 227.8-million units shipped in the previous quarter.

Samsung remains the chief beneficiary of those sales, with Apple trailing it in second place. Don’t expect the Cupertino-based giant to catch up any time soon though. IDC reckons that Samsung shipped more units in this quarter than the next four vendors combined.

One interesting move was the re-emergence of LG as a top five player. Sales of the Korean manufacturer’s devices were largely buoyed by the launch of its L Series and the Nexus 4, built in conjunction with Google.

In the overall mobile stakes, Nokia still occupies second place but there doesn’t seem to be any stopping its descent. Despite its efforts at punting its Lumia smartphones and breaking into emerging markets with the Asha series, its sales still fell 25% year-on-year. In fact, IDC’s figures are slightly more optimistic than Nokia’s own, which suggest that its total mobile phone sales dropped 30% in the quarter.

“Phone users want computers in their pockets. The days where phones are used primarily to make phone calls and send text messages are quickly fading away,” says Kevin Restivo, senior research analyst with IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker. “As a result, the balance of smartphone power has shifted to phone makers that are most dependent on smartphones.”

“In addition to smartphones displacing feature phones, the other major trend in the industry is the emergence of Chinese companies among the leading smartphone vendors,” noted Ramon Llamas, research manager with IDC’s Mobile Phone team. “A year ago, it was common to see previous market leaders Nokia, BlackBerry (then Research In Motion), and HTC among the top five. While those companies have been in various stages of transformation since, Chinese vendors, including Huawei and ZTE as well as Coolpad and Lenovo, have made significant strides to capture new users with their respective Android smartphones.”

While IDC’s figures are fairly authoritative, it should be noted that they only take into account the figures from official manufacturers. The proliferation of so-called white box manufacturers in China means that the milestone of smartphones outselling feature phones may have happened earlier, but not much.

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