Apple closing in on Samsung in global smartphone market dominance: IDC

Nevertheless, IDC analysts traced "a significant slowdown compared to 2013."

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Apple made waves earlier this week with the record-breaking news it shipped more than 74 million iPhones in a single quarter.

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2015 is looking increasingly optimistic for the Cupertino, Calif.-headquartered company based on year end observations by market research firm IDC.

According to its annual review published on Thursday, Apple "fell just short" of surpassing Samsung for the top spot in the global smartphone market.

Reaffirming the 74.5 million units-shipped figure, analysts reported Apple's market share grew by 46 percent year-over-year to attain 19.85 percent of the market share.

By comparison, Samsung only retains roughly 20.01 percent now after an 11 percent drop year-over-year. But the Korean tech giant shipped roughly 75.1 million units during the fourth quarter of 2014.

Ryan Reith, program director for IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker unit, suggested in the report that the Chinese market, in particular, is a key factor at play.

"First, at a time when average selling prices (ASPs) for smartphone are rapidly declining, Apple managed to increase its reported ASPs in the fourth quarter due to higher-cost new models," Reith explained. "Second, the growth of iPhone sales in both the U.S., which is considered a saturated market, and China, which presents the dual challenges of strong local competitors and serious price sensitivity, were remarkable."

However, this doesn't mean that Apple will automatically surpass Samsung within the next quarter or even next year. Reith acknowledged that sustaining this growth "could prove challenging," but he added "there is no question that Apple is leading the way."

Samsung might have a bigger problem on its hands than Apple even, namely in the trio made up by Xiaomi, Huawei, and ZTE.

Huawei jumped back into the top five vendor scoreboard to fourth place last quarter. And while Xiaomi dropped from third to fifth place, it still grew its market share by 178.6 percent year-over-year in Q4.

The smartphone market overall appears to be healthy, with 375.2 million units shipped during the fourth quarter and more than 1.3 billion units shipped over the course of 2014. Those figures translate to 28.2 percent and 27.6 percent annual growth respectively

Nevertheless, IDC analysts traced "a significant slowdown" compared to 2013 into 2014.

Ramon Llamas, a research manager for IDC's Mobile Phone team, observed mature markets are now turning the focus to upgrades and replacement purchases rather than first-time buyers, which slows down shipments and sales considerably.

However, emerging markets are still ripe for first-time buyers, but more so for cheaper smartphones.

"What remains to be seen is how the vendors beyond Samsung and Apple will assert themselves," Llamas concluded. "With Lenovo acquiring Motorola, and Xiaomi having greater aspirations beyond China, the competitive pressure will come more from below and less from above."

Chart via IDC Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, January 29, 2015

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