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Huawei smartphone sales plunge as Apple becomes world’s No 1 smartphone seller in China

Huawei ceded market share to Apple and others as it struggled to deliver premium handsets under US sanction

Huawei slumped down the rankings of global smartphone sellers in the last quarter as it struggled under US sanctions, while Apple shot to the top on the back of strong demand for the iPhone 12 range.

Smartphone manufacturers around the world shipped roughly 4 per cent more units year on year in the fourth quarter of 2020, reaching almost 386 million units, according to research firm IDC. Huawei, which came second in the previous quarter, sank to the fifth place with around 32 million handsets shipped.

Analysts at Canalys placed Huawei’s ranking even lower at the sixth place, marking the first time in six years that the Chinese company has fallen outside the top five.

More than half of those shipments went to China, where Huawei retained the top spot but saw its market share drop 22 per cent from 41 per cent in the third quarter, Canalys figures showed. Those shipments included handsets made by Honor, the sub-brand that Huawei sold in November.

“It is possibly Huawei’s toughest time as it is restrained to even serve its home market,” said Canalys vice-president of mobility Nicole Peng in a report.

“Huawei’s sell-in shipments shrunk by nearly half sequentially despite huge demand for Huawei devices, as the vendor is unable to fulfil this demand in the foreseeable future. Other vendors are eyeing this opportunity.”

The dramatic decline underscores the challenge that Huawei is facing under increasing US pressure. Just last summer, it briefly became the world’s top smartphone seller, wresting the crown from Samsung. But the Shenzhen-based telecoms equipment maker has since struggled under fresh sanctions from Washington that cut off its access to vital chips made with US software or technology.

Huawei was expected to fall further this year to the seventh place in global smartphone shipments, according to a forecast by research company TrendForce in January.

The outlook could not look more different for Apple, which reached a historic milestone last quarter.

Apple topped global rankings with nearly 82 million handsets shipped worldwide, according to Canalys. IDC put the number at over 90 million – the most units that any vendor has shipped in a quarter since the firm started tracking smartphone shipments.

In China, Apple also recorded remarkable performance. While it still lagged market leader Huawei, Apple grew its share from 15 per cent a year ago to 18 per cent in the fourth quarter, Canalys estimated.

“Apple had a great year in China, where full-year shipments finally returned to the 2018 level, driven by both iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 models,” said Canalys analyst Amber Liu.

On Wednesday, Apple reported its highest ever quarterly revenue in Greater China, which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan. Strong demand for Apple’s first 5G phones – the iPhone 12 series that launched in October, a month later than usual – contributed to a 57 per cent jump in China sales.

Apple CEO Tim Cook attributed the record sales to Chinese consumers’ affinity for 5G. The country has been pushing ahead with the expansion of 5G networks and most flagship smartphones launched by major Chinese brands last year included 5G.

“Keep in mind that 5G in China is … well established. And the overwhelming majority of phones being sold are 5G phones. And so I think there was some level of anticipation for us delivering an iPhone with 5G,” he said on the earnings call.

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