Smartphones remain the main port in the handset storm

by Caroline Gabriel, ReThink Wireless

In its quarterly overview of the handset sector, IDC has echoed many other surveys in pointing to smartphones as a rare growth area in a generally depressed market.

In the fourth quarter, the global market saw a downturn of 12.6% in volumes, shipping 289 million units, compared with 330.8 million in the last quarter of 2007. For the full year, 1.18 billion units shipped worldwide, up 3.5% on 2007’s 1.14 billion.

Senior analyst Ramon Llamas stated: “The fourth quarter was the perfect storm of factors to produce this result. A combination of weak end user demand, currency volatility and limited credit availability prevented the market from experiencing the usual seasonal increase in shipments.”

This will have a knock-on effect throughout the first half of 2009 as the channels clear inventory, and IDC is not looking for recovery until late 2009, or even into 2010.

The only real highlight in Q4 of 2008 was smartphones, which IDC defines ‘converged mobile devices’. This segment grew by 22.5% in volume year on year. Growth was highest in north America, at a staggering 70%, while EMEA saw 25%.

Another IDC analyst, Ryan Reith, commented: “This segment is unique and unlike the rest of the market. Data attachment rates for these devices are well beyond that of traditional mobile phones, and the devices and services catering to this segment were more readily available than ever before in 2008. As long as operators are able to continue to subsidize these devices, and developers continue to enhance applications, then this segment will be a silver lining to an otherwise gloomy market.”

In market share terms, according to IDC calculations, Nokia slipped below its 40% level of a year before, but maintained 39.1% despite a 15% fall in shipments to 113.1 million units. Samsung increased shipments by 14% to 52.8m units, to gain 18.3% share, up from 14%, and fellow Korean LG saw a climb of 8.4% to 25.7 million phones, equating to 8.9% share. This put more clear water than usual between LG and Sony Ericsson, which suffered a 21.4% decline in sales to 24.2 million units, for 8.4% share. Motorola slipped by a massive 53% to 19.2 million units or 6.6% share. ‘Others’ made up only 18.7% of sales in total, as power gets increasingly concentrated in the hands of the top four.

For the full year, this picture was similar, with 81.5% of sales going to the top five. In this period, Motorola hung on to fourth place, with 100.1 million unit sales and 8.5% share. This was almost neck and neck with LG, on 100.7 million units and less than a percentage point more share than its US rival – but LG’s sales were up 25% year on year, in contrast to Motorola’s 37% dip. In fifth place, Sony Ericsson saw a slip of 6.6% to 96.6 million units, or 8.2% share, dashing its hopes of being in the top three for 2008. The big two were way out ahead, with Nokia up 7.2% to 468.4 million units, for 39.7% share, and Samsung up 22% to 196.7 million phones, or 16.7%.

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