Apple beats Samsung becomes biggest US mobile phone vendor in Q4

Apple [AAPL] reclaimed the quarterly US smartphone championship cup from Samsung once again in Q4, according to Strategy Analytics -- but year-on-year the industry shrank slightly as economic uncertainty continues to impact consumer and enterprise markets.

Apple leads US mobile phone market in Q4

[ABOVE: Apple and Samsung together are the US mobile phone industry.]

Apple sets new US records

The news is a big claim for Apple -- not only did it become the biggest smartphone vendor in the US, it also became the biggest mobile phone vendor in the US for the very first time, says Strategy Anlaytics analyst, Neil Mawston:

“Apple iPhone overtook Samsung to become, for the first time, the number one mobile phone vendor in the influential United States market in the fourth quarter of 2012.”

Overall, mobile phone shipments grew 4 percent year-on-year to hit 52 million units in the quarter, including both smart- and feature phones. Apple’s achievements were pretty strong: the company set a new record as it secured 34 percent of the total US mobile phone market, the analyst’s said.

The most concerning metric included within the report is the finding that annual sales in the US were lower in 2012 than in 2011. We saw that pattern begin in advance of the iPhone 5 release, which at the time industry watchers put down to pent-up demand for the hot Apple product. However, its clear this wasn’t the whole story: cash-strapped consumers are holding off on major purchases in reaction to economic woe and tough carrier upgrade policies.

“However, despite a solid fourth-quarter performance, the US mobile phone market had previously contracted 16 percent for the first three quarters of 2012 due to economic uncertainty and tighter carrier upgrade policies. As a result, US mobile phone shipments fell 11 percent from 186.8 million units in 2011 to 166.9 million in 2012,” said Neil Shah, Senior Analyst at Strategy Analytics.

Apple executives may take a little grim pleasure in this assessment, as it suggests all its competitors are beginning to feel the impact of recession.

[ABOVE: A typical iPhone 5 launch queue -- this one in New York.]

iPhone 5 demand pushes Apple

In a sense that the company set new records within the quarter then becomes all the more impressive. The analysts estimate Apple shipped 17.7 million mobile phones for a record 34 percent share of the US market in the quarter -- that’s up by 4.9 million units on the year-ago quarter, and as previous reports confirmed a slump in demand preceding launch of the device, it’s clear the iPhone 5 drove Apple’s success.

The quarterly supremacy challenge between Apple and Samsung for dominance of the US market seems set to continue across this year, notes analyst, Neil Mawston:

“Samsung shipped 16.8 million mobile phones in the United States, for 32 percent share, during Q4 2012. This was a good performance from Samsung, as its market share rose 5 points from 27 percent a year earlier, but it was not enough to hold off a surging Apple. Samsung had been the number one mobile phone vendor in the US since 2008, and it will surely be keen to recapture that title in 2013 by launching improved new models such as the rumored Galaxy S4.”

Third place player, LG, shifted 4.7 million phones in the quarter, while others fought over the remaining 34 percent of mobile phone sales. That’s bad news for Microsoft’s Windows ecosystem, and a tough starting point for BlackBerry 10.

[ABOVE: Samsung's slightly passive aggressive response to iPhone queues.]

Apple versus Samsung everywhere (and Sony came too)

That Apple and Samsung have emerged as the clear brand favorites across the US market should surprise no one. Numerous market analyses pointed to this outcome in the December quarter.

As Apple prepares its next-generation Macs, iPads, iPhones and significant improvements for Apple TV, the battle between itself and Samsung seems set to intensify. In its analysis of consumer favorites across the US and European consumer electronics segment, Strategy Analytics' ConsumerMetrix service found the top 17 brands in order of preference to be

  1. Samsung, 
  2. Sony, 
  3. Apple, 
  4. HP, 
  5. LG, 
  6. Panasonic, 
  7. Dell, 
  8. Nokia, 
  9. Philips, 
  10. Toshiba, 
  11. Acer, 
  12. Sharp, 
  13. Asus, 
  14. Motorola, 
  15. Sanyo, 
  16. Blackberry, 
  17. Lenovo.

Mind share wars

"These survey findings suggest that the 12-month outlook for both Samsung and Apple remains rosy," says David Mercer, Principal Analyst at Strategy Analytics. "By contrast most rivals are struggling to improve consumer support and urgently need to improve mindshare."

While both Apple and Samsung face complex challenges as they attempt to retain their slice of the pie, Samsung executives have yet to see the first high-end products to emerge from Android developer, Google’s, recently purchased Motorola Mobility subsidiary. 

Motorola Mobility is expected to introduce new high-end smartphones (X-Phone?) at some point, which, given Google’s many ways with which to market such a devices, should certainly give other Android-based manufacturers fresh challenge.

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