Smartphones Become Larger Slice of Shrinking Mobile Pie

Smartphone sales worldwide grew 12.7 percent in the first quarter of 2009, according to recent figures from research firm Gartner.

Growth was led by Apple’s iPhone, which doubled its market share, and by Research In Motion’s BlackBerry phones, sales of which grew by almost 50 percent. While Nokia again topped smartphone unit sales, its share of the market looks to be shrinking.

Touchscreens were a major driver for the category, but at the high end, buyers want tighter integration with applications, music, email and Internet browsing services, according to Gartner.

It was a strong quarter for smartphones, a category of cellphone generally defined as being capable of running advanced operating systems and applications developed by third parties. However, smartphones are still a relatively small corner of the overall cellphone market, and worldwide cellphone sales declined by nearly 9 percent year-over-year, Gartner found.

Yay for the Smartphone

With over 36 million units sold in the first quarter, smartphones constituted 13.5 percent of the just over 269 million cellphones sold worldwide, Gartner’s figures show.

Nokia, with almost 15 million smartphones sold, still dominates the market, of which it has 41.2 percent. However, in Q1 of 2008, its market share was 45.1 percent.

Research In Motion took second place in smartphones, with more than 7.2 million units sold, making up almost 20 percent of the market. That’s approximately 50 percent up from its showing last year, when it sold 4.3 million units for a 13.3 percent share.

Apple, which came in third in the smartphone sales standings, has also seen significant growth in its market share over the past four quarters. In Q1 2009, it sold more than 3.9 million iPhones, constituting 10.8 percent of the market. That’s more than double the approximately 1.7 million units it sold and the 5.3 percent market share it won in the first quarter of last year.

Overall, smartphone sales grew by about 13 percent year-over-year from the 32.3 million racked up in Q1 of 2008.

Why the Smartphone Sells

Demand for smartphones was driven by touchscreen products in the mid-tier and at the high end, Gartner concluded. However, at the higher end, consumers will want tighter integration with applications, as well as services around music, mobile email and Internet browsing, the research firm found.

That could make the Palm Pre, which will be launched on June 6, a serious contender. The Pre takes Internet browsing and search to a new level, IDC senior research analyst Ryan Reith said.

“If I start to type in a term like, say ‘Red Sox,’ and the device doesn’t see anything stored on it that has the word ‘Red’ in it, it will immediately launch a real-time search on the Web and pull up the results,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “There’s no lag, which is the big thing. You don’t have to do a search, then pull up the Web, pull up Google and then start searching the Web.”

The Decline of the Simple-Minded Mobile

There’s no question that the market for simple mobile phones is weakening — about 25 million, or 13.2 percent, of the more than 269 mobile phones sold this past quarter worldwide came from inventory destocking, Gartner said.

That’s the highest level of sales from inventory the firm has seen.

The first-quarter results were lower than those of last year’s Q4, and they also constituted a year-over-year decline for the first time, according to Gartner.

All the Statistics, Please

However, unit sales figures may not fully reflect the state of the market. For one thing, smartphones typically cost more than their less-intelligent counterparts, and they often provide manufacturers with higher margins.

In addition, gray market sales can be difficult to factor in. For example, about 33 million mobile phones will be sold on the gray market in China in 2009, while the country will export 80 million gray market handsets this year, Kevin Wang, director of China research at iSuppli, told the E-Commerce Times. He did not distinguish between mobile phones and smartphones.

“We do account for the gray market in China, although we concentrate less on the rural areas where you have most of the gray market sales,” Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi told the E-Commerce Times.

Gartner expects the market in China to pick up in the second half of the year.

General Sales Figures

Nokia continued to dominate the overall mobile market with sales of more than 97 million units and a 36.2 percent share. However, its hold appears to be slipping — in Q1 of 2008, it had 39.1 percent of the market and sold more than 115 million phones.

Samsung was second, with more than 51 million units sold and a 19.1 percent market share. That’s up from the more than 42 million units sold and 14.4 percent market share it had last year.

LG placed third with more than 26 million units sold and 9.9 percent of the market. In Q1 of 2008, the comparable figures were over 23 million units sold and 8 percent of the market.

Eventually, less-advanced mobile phones will be commoditized to the point where they will be sold mainly to developing countries, Gartner’s Milanesi said.

“In Western Europe, for instance, we expect smartphones to make up more than 70 percent of sales by 2013,” she added.

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