With most of the major handset makers having reported earnings for the quarter that ended in December, analyst houses are laying out their rankings in global smartphone and overall mobile shipments. Nokia (NYSE: NOK) has just about managed to keep its top position overall, while Apple’s phenomenal quarter has put it into pole position among smartphone makers — but only by a fraction of a percentage point.
New figures from Strategy Analytics show that Nokia, with shipments (which Nokia terms “sales”: more on that below) of 113.5 million, has continued to hold on to its position as the number-one phone maker in Q4. Its lead has narrowed by quite some way over last year: it was at 26.9 percent for the quarter and 25.5 percent for the year, compared to 30.9 percent and 33.3 percent for the quarter and year in 2010.
Samsung, shipping 95 million units, made smaller gains than Nokia lost: 1.1 percent on the quarter and 0.5 percent on the year to claim the number two-slot.
What stood in its way to overtaking Nokia? Apple (NSDQ: AAPL). On the strength of its smartphone-only portfolio, it made the biggest gain in market share of the top-three, picking up 4.3 percentage points for the quarter on shipments (like Nokia, Apple calls them “sales”) of 37 million units, to take an 8.3 percent share of the market for the quarter, and 6 percent for the year.
That’s sort of comparing apples with oranges, though. When comparing like-for-like: Apple has edged past Samsung for the quarter with a 0.4 percent lead in market share in smartphones, while over the whole of 2011, Samsung just about still leads Apple, with a 0.9 percent lead.
Nokia trailed the two by nearly twelve percentage points for the quarter, a big reversal from a year ago when it was well in the lead as the biggest-single smartphone maker.
Figures out today from IHS iSuppli, meanwhile, add in two more handset makers to the mix. It says that Sony (NYSE: SNE) Ericsson (NSDQ: ERIC) took the number-four slot after the first three (ranking them in the same order as Strategy Analytics); with Motorola (NYSE: MMI) just behind, with six million and five million devices shipped, respectively. IHS did not include RIM (NSDQ: RIMM), HTC or LG (SEO: 066570) — other notable vendors — in its rankings; they have not reported quarterly figures this week.
In both smartphones and mobile devices overall, “Others” grew numbers in unit terms and made an annual gain on market share to become the biggest group for 2011 market share in Strategy Analytics’ figures. That means still a lot of competition out there from many handset makers, with none of them having a significant enough share to merit placement in the top-three.
On a services level, that speaks to a continuing and strong amount of device fragmentation. That will continue to slow down revenue growth in other areas like mobile content and advertising — areas where it pays for there to be scale to charge the biggest prices. (Case in point: can you imagine what TV advertising or content production would be like if distributors and media buyers had to format ads for different TV set models?)
On shipments versus sales. While these numbers can be instructive, they can also be confusing: If you look at Strategy Analytics’ “shipments” numbers, they are the same as the “sales” numbers that companies like Apple and Nokia reported this week. Neil Mawston, executive director for Strategy Analytics’ global wireless practice, says vendors “tend to use those words interchangeably” even though one refers to actual devices in people’s hands, while the other is for devices that have been shipped to distributors, but not necessarily sold. “They can be open to interpretation,” he admitted. “A lot of companies use smoke and mirrors,” so Strategy Analytics uses other measures such as “channel checks” to measure shipments.
On RIM. It’s notable that RIM didn’t appear in the top-three smartphone makers, so I asked Mawston about their prospects: He says they are “not too far behind number-three” at the moment in overall rankings and smartphones, “and if they had a good quarter or two they could get close.” But the trend so far has been that RIM’s been slowing down and “not providing too much competition” globally. He didn’t mention Motorola or Sony Ericsson, which made iSuppli’s global ranking.
On Samsung. Mawston believes Samsung will stay ahead in smartphones, even with Apple’s strong Q4: “It just has more price points, appeals to both post and prepaid customers, and has a bigger distribution network among carriers,” he said, adding that Apple may well give it a run for its money. “They may trade places for a few quarters.”
He notes that Apple has a massive retail presence in some countries like the U.S. but ultimately it’s the carrier network that really gives device makers that extra leg up in worldwide sales — a key pillar of Nokia‘s fightback strategy, too. “The key thing with carriers is that they can subsidize the iPhone [or another device]. Without operator subsidies, [smartphones] would be nowhere near as large right now.”