The successful launch of the large screen iPhone 6 and iPhone 6+ devices has propelled Apple into the number one spot in the global smartphone market.
According to calculations by analyst Gartner, in the fourth quarter of last year, Apple sold 74.8 million handsets, up from 50 million units in the previous quarter. In contrast Samsung - which had held the top spot in the analyst's rankings since 2011 - sold 73 million smartphones, down from 83 million in the previous quarter.
Apple's big screen gamble with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6+ paid off, as the company "continued to see huge demand" with sales in China and US, growing at 56 percent and 88 percent quarter on quarter respectively, the analyst said.
Smartphone sales Q4 2014 vs Q3 2014, Source: Gartner
As well as attracting new customers, Apple's big-screen phones also persuaded existing users to upgrade to new handsets. "These new smartphones also offered new users, who are looking for larger screen phones, a strong alternative to Android," Gartner said.
In contrast to Apple's barnstorming quarter, Samsung's market share dropped nearly 10 percentage points. "This downward trend shows that Samsung's share of profitable premium smartphone users has come under significant pressure," said Anshul Gupta, principal research analyst at Gartner.
However, for the full year, Samsung was still comfortably ahead: during 2014, the company sold 307 million smartphones compared to Apple's 191 million devices. Lenovo, Huawei, and LG made up the rest of the top five sellers for 2014. Whether Apple's hold on the number one spot will continue into 2015, after the initial excitement around its large phones has subsided, remains to be seen. Just this week Samung unveiled its Galaxy S6, which could help it regain its crown.
Roberta Cozza, research director at Gartner, said that with Apple dominating the premium phone market and Chinese vendors increasingly offering quality hardware at lower prices, Samsung needs to build a solid ecosystem of apps, content, and services unique to Samsung devices to create more loyalty and longer-term differentiation at the high end of the market.
And Apple's rise wasn't the only drama in the smartphone market: in the fourth quarter of 2014, Lenovo - which acquired Motorola in October - leapfrogged into the number three spot with a 6.6 per cent market share (growing 47.6 percent year on year). Gartner said that Lenovo's sales of mobile phones in China grew 7.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2014. It also saw strong sales in Russia, India, Indonesia, and Brazil in the fourth quarter of 2014, which helped its share of the global mobile phone market grow by 26 percent.
Vendors such as Huawei (now the fourth largest smartphone maker) and Xiaomi (fifth place), are continuing to improve their sales in China and other overseas markets, increasing their share in the mid to low-end smartphone market. "Chinese vendors are no longer followers," said Cozza.
"They are producing higher quality devices with appealing new hardware features that can rival the more established players in the mobile phone market. Brand building and marketing will be key activities in deciding which Chinese vendors can secure a foothold in mature markets."
Cheap smartphones have eaten into the feature phone market as users upgrade to more fully-featured devices, particularly in emerging markets such as India, Russia, and Mexico. This is benefiting Android, which saw its market share grow 2.2 percentage points in 2014, and 32 percent year on year. Gartner said Windows Phone's performance was flat but it recorded strong results in some markets in Europe, and in the business segment.
Worldwide sales of smartphones to end users had a record fourth quarter of 2014 with an increase of 29.9 percent from the fourth quarter of 2013 to reach 367.5 million units. According to Gartner's calculations, 1.2 billion smartphones were sold worldwide in 2014 - up 28.4 percent from 2013 - and smartphones now account for two-thirds of global mobile phone sales.