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China becomes largest smartphone market

Overtakes US as biggest base by units, though not revenue, with Nokia and Samsung in the lead


Published: 23 November, 2011

READ MORE: Metrics | China | Nokia | Handset

China is now the largest smartphone market in the world, having overtaken the US for that crown during the third quarter, according to researchers at Strategy Analytics. The company calculates that 23.9m smartphones shipped in China during the quarter, just ahead of 23.3m in the US.

This reflects the recent sharp rise in adoption of China's 3G networks, as well as the huge size of its mobile population, which will reach one billion by May 2012 if current trends continue. And the Chinese smartphone ecosystem has a different structure to that of the western markets, with Nokia still in the leading position - by contrast, on a global basis it has been overtaken by both Samsung and Apple, while it has virtually no presence at all in US smartphones.

The Finnish vendor shipped 6.8m smartphones in China during the quarter, not far off one-third of the total, justifying its claim that its Symbian legacy OS would remain robust in the emerging markets, at least for another year or two. It has not yet shipped its new WP7 Lumia devices to China. Behind Nokia came Samsung, with 4.2m smartphones sold in the country, making a combined market share of over 46% for the two leaders (a similar percentage to that controlled by the two US leaders, HTC and Apple, in that country in Q3. They took 44.6% share between them).

Just as Samsung is closing in on those two leaders in the US (and Nokia hopes to do so next year with Lumia), so the Chinese rankings will shift as the three operators become more focused on Android; as local suppliers move from featurephones into smartphones; and as China Mobile potentially takes on the iPhone, which currently only sells via China Unicom.

There are other parallels between the Chinese market and the US, notably the key drivers behind its 58% unit growth compared to Q211 - these are heavy carrier subsidies and an "emerging wave of low cost Android models from local Chinese brands such as ZTE", according to Strategy Analytics director Tom Kang. And the firm's executive director Neil Mawston added: "The US remains the world's largest smartphone market by revenue, but China has overtaken the US in terms of volume. China is now at the forefront of the worldwide mobile computing boom. It has become a large and growing smartphone market that no hardware vendor, component maker or content developer can afford to ignore."

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