Surprises lurk in IDCs latest India report on smartphones

The biggest surprise was that smartphone sales actually fell, which for the hottest market in the world is more of a shocker than a surprise.

Something weird happened in the hottest smartphone market in the world last quarter. Not just weird, but downright alarming. According to research outfit IDC, smartphone shipments actually fell by 11 percent over Q3, and were 5 percent lower than the same quarter the previous year. This was amidst all the frenzied internet sales of seemingly unending hot products from the likes of Motorola and Xiaomi producing the kind of froth that India hasn't perhaps seen in the market for any consumer product.

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Luckily for phone buyers, the drop is explainable -- a result of high inventory that retailers tend to take in right before the big festival-holiday consumer madness that occurs right before Diwali -- and highlights the peculiarities of selling in a market like India. Online sales apparently didn't help any, contributing to the drop. Smartphones make up 35 percent of phones sold in India, the rest being feature phones. However, feature phone growth rates continue to plummet.

Yet, IDC's report on the fourth quarter had some predictable items: Samsung is still out ahead of the rest, with 22 percent share in the smartphone market, but its numbers continue to drop in a war of attrition waged by newbies like Xiaomi and Motorola, which have experienced great fortunes in India at the cost of Samsung. The Korean brand got waylaid for another 2 percentage points thanks to its inability to play in the value-for-money category where it has, by and large, been a no-show. Home-grown company Micromax was number two, at 18 percent.

The most exciting news is that Xiaomi, thanks to its dazzling launches, has hurtled into the top five rankings with a 4 percent share, despite only hawking its phones online and being in the market for less than half a year. The most surprising revelation was the ascendancy of Indian home-grown brand Intex to the number three spot, almost out of nowhere, elbowing aside Lava to number four with 7 percent. Which means that local brand Karbonn, which enjoyed the number three spot before this quarter, has fallen out of the top five. Lava will get some relief to read in an Economic Times' report that the brand still enjoys good standing with its distributors.

In other news, everyone's apparently jockeying for position amidst the great Indian 4G rollout. "For vendors and ecosystem partners, greater emphasis on 4G-enabled handsets at competitive price points will be the order of the day," said Kiran Kumar, research manager of client devices, IDC India, in The Economic Times. Vendors that haven't assembled an arsenal of 4G phones stand being not invited to the party when all systems hit go post-rollout, added the report.