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Phone sales peaked five years ago

In 2016 the industry shipped a shade under 1.5 billion phones. By 2020 that had slipped to under 1.3 billion.

Statista graph showing IDC phone shipments 2008 to 2020Last year’s numbers are not in yet. The early indications are the 2021 tally will be a shade below 2020.

Gartner explains that the fall is down to delayed product launches, longer delivery times and inventory problems.

This sounds plausible. Yet the underlying five year trend remains down regardless of short term considerations.

Gentle decline

Phone sales numbers have not dropped off a cliff. They show a gentle year-on-year decline with the occasional quarterly uptick.

There are people in the industry who think the shift to 5G will rekindle consumer interest.

It’s possible, but not likely. There’s little new and practical that 5G networks have to offer to phone buyers. You won’t get to do anything new with a 5G phone that you can’t do with a 4G phone other than access a previously unavailable part of the frequency spectrum.

That lack of new capability gets to the heart of the problem.

Saturated market

The phone market is saturated. There are few new buyers entering the market.

At the same time, there has been less innovation in phone technology. There are no compelling reasons to bring forward an upgrade. That means people hang on to existing models for longer.

You upgrade when your existing phone dies or degrades.

IDC suggests sales will grow between now and 2025. At that point, total shipments will reach a new high of a fraction over 1.5 billion.

Flat, or, at least, flattish

Even if this is correct. It can’t been seen as anything other than a flat market. In effect, IDC says total shipments will climb less than two percent over a decade.

Apple kicked off the modern touchscreen smartphone era in 2007 when it released the first iPhone.

Over the years since then, the company’s share of total unit sales dropped away. At one point more than seven Android phones sold for every iPhone.

When it comes to revenue, Apple’s share has always been far higher. And higher again if we look at profits made from selling phones. Many of the company’s Android rivals were, in effect, buying market share by selling at cost or even at a loss.

Today Apple’s unit market share is climbing again as Android rivals exit the market or otherwise fade.

Apple the winner from Huawei’s woes

Apple has benefited from Huawei’s troubles. Sales of that company’s phones have plummeted since the US applied sanctions two years ago.

The most recent phone market snapshot from Canalys says:

“Apple accounted for 22 percent of worldwide smartphone shipments in Q4 2021, thanks to strong demand for the iPhone 13.”

Canalys Analyst Sanyam Chaurasia says: ““Apple saw unprecedented iPhone performance in Mainland China, with aggressive pricing for its flagship devices keeping the value proposition strong.

“Apple’s supply chain is starting to recover, but it was still forced to cut production in Q4 amid shortages of key components and could not make enough iPhones to meet demand. In prioritized markets, it maintained adequate delivery times, but in some markets its customers had to wait to get their hands on the latest iPhones.”

Worldwide smartphone shipments and growth
Canalys Preliminary Smartphone Market Pulse: Q4 2021

Vendor

Q4 2020 market share

Q4 2021 market share

Apple

23%

22%

Samsung

17%

20%

Xiaomi

12%

12%

Oppo

10%

9%

vivo

9%

8%

Preliminary estimates are subject to change upon final release
Note: percentages may not add up to 100 percent due to rounding
Note: OnePlus is included in Oppo shipments from Q4 2021
Source: Canalys estimates (sell-in shipments), Smartphone Analysis, January 2022

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