No January blues for China’s smartphone market as 2015 saw record sales of 460.5 million units as 4G handsets take off

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 January, 2016, 7:55pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 January, 2016, 7:59pm

A recovery is now afoot in the world’s largest smartphone market as total 4G and 3G handset shipments in mainland China reached a record 460.5 million units last year, despite a first-half slowdown that hurt major device suppliers.

Data from Bernstein and the state-run China Academy of Telecommunications Research showed that combined 4G and 3G smartphone shipments increased 18 per cent from 391.7 million units in 2014.

In December alone, smartphone shipments rose 33 per cent to 51.4 million units, up from 38.5 million units a year earlier.

“For handset manufacturers, December’s strength offers additional confidence,” Bernstein senior analyst Chris Lane said.

There were 90 new smartphone models released on the mainland last month, of which 89 were 4G handsets.

Total 4G smartphone shipments last year jumped 157 per cent to 440.3 million units, up from 171.4 million in 2014.

“We see continued strength in the first quarter this year, offset by the seasonal effect from Chinese New Year,” Lane said.

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“Going forward, we see robust recovery of Android devices, while [Apple’s] iOS devices are likely to face subdued demand.”

According to Sino Market Research, Chinese makers of smartphones that run on Google’s Android operating system saw their market share on the mainland reach about 81 per cent last year.

That was followed by the iPhone with 11 per cent, while smartphones based on e-commerce powerhouse Alibaba Group’s own YunOS had around a 7 per cent share.

China Mobile, the world’s largest wireless network operator by subscribers, is expected to continue driving demand for new 4G smartphones on the mainland.

“The company finished the year with 312 million 4G subscribers, ahead of our 300 million forecast and its management’s guidance of 250 million,” Lane said.

Management at China Mobile, which had 826.241 million 2G, 3G and 4G users at the end of December, has targeted 500 million total 4G subscribers this year.

Both China Unicom and China Telecom do not break down their 4G subscriber numbers. These two operators, however, report the number of 4G smartphones used on their networks.

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Unicom said it had 60 million subscribers with 4G handsets, while China Telecom reported 58 million subscribers with these devices.

A report by Ericcson, the world’s biggest supplier of telecommunications equipment, predicted that China will have 1.2 billion 4G subscriptions by 2021.

The recovery in the mainland smartphone market augurs well for the expansion plans of Chinese smartphone brands, following a slowdown that began in the fourth quarter of 2014.

A sluggish domestic economy, which was exacerbated by the local stock market crash, led to weak demand for smartphones, other consumer electronic goods and much luxury merchandise.

Beset by that slowdown, global computer giant Lenovo Group last year wrote off US$300 million of its smartphone inventory as part of a sweeping corporate restructuring.