"The mobile phone market exhibited unusually low growth last quarter, which shows it is not immune to weaker macroeconomic conditions worldwide," said Kevin Restivo, senior research analyst with IDC's Worldwide Mobile Phone Tracker. "The introduction of high-growth products such as the iPhone 4S, which shipped in the fourth quarter, bolstered smartphone growth. Yet overall market growth fell to its lowest point since 3Q09 when the global economic recession was in full bloom."
While smartphones continue to grow in popularity, feature phones still comprise the majority of all mobile phone shipments. "Feature phones accounted for a majority of shipments from four of the five market leaders during the quarter," said Ramon Llamas, senior research analyst with IDC's Mobile Phone Technology and Trends team. "Even though their proportion is eroding, feature phones maintain their appeal on the basis of price and ease of use.
"At the same time, feature phones are fighting to maintain their market share," added Llamas. "To meet the challenge, feature phones are becoming more like smartphones, incorporating mobile Internet and third-party applications. While this may not stem the smartphone tide, it should slow down the rate at which smartphones are selected over feature phones."
Nokia finished the year as the undisputed leader of total mobile phone shipments. The company took another step in its storied transition, having officially launched its first Windows Phone-powered Lumia smartphones and its Asha line of smartphone-like feature phones. While both have received positive response from the market, Nokia has been quick to adjust its retail experience, customer engagement, and hardware bug fixes. At the same time, the increased focus on the Lumia, combined with changing market conditions in key markets, has prompted Nokia to change its strategy on Symbian smartphones. Fewer Symbian devices will be sold in 2012. Still, Nokia's broad distribution around the world and manufacturing capabilities make it a serious contender to maintain its leadership position.
Samsung finished the quarter and the year reaching new record levels: breaking the 90 million unit mark for the first time in a single quarter and breaking the 300 million mark for the first time in a single year. Leading the charge for Samsung was its growing smartphone volumes, boosted by the release of several high-end devices (Galaxy S II, Galaxy Note, Galaxy Nexus), mass market models (Galaxy Ace, and Galaxy Y), and new Windows Phone smartphones (Focus Flash and the Focus S). These, along with its own steadily growing feature phone volumes, pushed Samsung closer to market leader Nokia, with fewer than 20 million units separating them in 4Q11.
Apple jumped into the third spot globally from the fifth spot last quarter thanks to a record-breaking quarter of shipments. That represents the Cupertino-based company's highest-ever ranking on IDC's Top 5 global mobile phone leaderboard. The launch of Apple's iPhone 4S smartphone, which is now available in over 90 countries (as of mid-January), was the primary reason the company leapt over LG and ZTE in 4Q11. Device sales in the U.S. and Japan were particularly strong given extra sales days in the quarter and carrier distribution.
LG's total volumes declined for the third consecutive quarter, sinking to levels not seen since the second quarter of 2007. Driving this result was a combination of waning interest in its aging feature phones and stalled smartphone volumes. In addition, from a full year perspective, LG posted the largest full year-over-year decline among the leading vendors. Still, the quarter did have some bright spots, including a return to profitability and a warm reception for its Optimus LTE smartphones across multiple markets. 2012 will feature more smartphones from LG, especially LTE-powered models, but the competition has similar smartphone strategies.
Chinese vendor ZTE nearly tied with LG for fourth place, with fewer than a million units separating the two vendors. Long known as a purveyor of entry level devices, ZTE's smartphones increasingly moved into the spotlight. The company's primary targets included countries throughout Asia/Pacific, but it also gained presence in EMEA and Latin America, and branched out into North America. Key models for the quarter included its popular mass-market Blade and mid-range Skate Android smartphones, and recently the company added its first Windows Phone-powered smartphone, the Tania.