Apple smartphones outsold Samsung's in Q4

Apple outsold Samsung by the narrowest of margins in Q4, but both are pursued by a pack of determined Chinese manufacturers

Apple has overtaken Samsung Electronics in smartphone sales for the first time in two years -- but don't count on it staying ahead for long.

Samsung sold 76.8 million smartphones in the fourth quarter, giving it a market share of 17.8 percent, but it was just beaten by Apple, which sold 77 million iPhones for a 17.9 percent share, according to figures from Gartner.

The fourth quarter is usually a strong one for Apple, boosted by holiday sales of the new generation of iPhones it releases each September, said Anshul Gupta, a research director at Gartner.

For Samsung, though, 2016 ended particularly badly, dominated by the fiasco around the recall of its incendiary Galaxy Note7.

Super-phones like the Note7 could have accounted for 10 to 15 percent of Samsung's smartphone sales in the period before its recall, said Gupta, but Samsung lost more than that: There was also the damage to its brand.

It could bounce back sooner rather than later, though, as it has a new flagship phone coming out at the end of March.

Apple, meanwhile, is expected to wait until September before unveiling new iPhones. This year will mark the iPhone's 10th anniversary, and the next model is widely expected to be something special, so Apple fans may delay replacing phones until then, said Gupta. That would leave the way clear for Samsung to move back into the lead from this quarter.

That pattern showed up last year too: Although it dominated the fourth quarter, Apple was a distant second over the full year, with market share of just 14.4 percent over the year, far behind Samsung's 20.5 percent, and the situation was similar the previous year.

While the giants slug it out, a more interesting battle is going on just beneath them, as the next three companies in the fourth-quarter smartphone rankings are all Chinese.

Huawei Technologies is in third place with a worldwide smartphone market share of 9.5 percent, with fourth and fifth taken by Oppo (6.2 percent) and BBK Communication Equipment (5.6 percent), two companies that many consider to be part of the same conglomerate.

Gartner treats them separately because, whatever their shareholding structure, they operate independently, each with their own product team, Gupta said.

BBK, almost unknown in the West, is now the number one smartphone brand in China, he said. A year ago, though, that honor went to Oppo, and the year before that, Huawei. Previous years saw the Chinese market topped by Xiaomi and Samsung.

These Chinese companies have pushed Apple and Samsung aside in their home market, and are expanding across South Asia.

"Even in their current expansion, Oppo is not focusing just on emerging markets, but also on developed markets like Australia," said Gupta, so we may soon see them climbing up the rankings in Europe and the U.S too.

The key ingredients for that are already in their products, he said. "Oppo and BBK make great phones in terms of feature set. They have integrated high-end features like dual cameras and fast charge."

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