Smartphone Shipments Overtake PC Sales

In a significant milestone, smartphone sales have overtaken sales of PCs, despite the inclusion of tablets

The growing popularity of smartphones has been starkly illustrated by research firm Canalys, after it discovered that for the first time smartphone sales have surpassed those of PCs during the fourth quarter of 2011.

What’s more, smartphones also out sold PCs even with the inclusion of tablets, such as the Apple iPad, into the mix.

Cheap Smartphones

In all, vendors shipped 158.5 million smartphones during the quarter – up 57 percent from 101.2 million units during the same quarter a year ago – compared to 120.2 million PCs. Smartphones led for the full year 2011 as well, on shipments of 487.7 million units to 414.6 million PCs. Of those PC units, 63.2 million were tablets.

“Smartphone shipments overtaking those of client PCs should be seen as a significant milestone,” Canalys analyst Chris Jones said in a statement. “In the space of a few years, smartphones have grown from being a niche product segment at the high-end of the mobile phone market to becoming a truly mass-market proposition.”

Helping “tremendously,” he added, are smartphones at the lower end of the price range and consumers’ growing appetites for Web browsing, content consumption, apps and mobile services.

That said, the firm expects smartphone sales to slow some in 2012, as vendors “exercise greater cost control and discipline, and put more focus on profitability,” added Jones. “Notably, even vendors who have focused on conquering the low-end of the market with aggressive pricing, such as Huawei, ZTE and LG, are now placing greater attention on the higher tiers. Flagship models aimed at raising selling prices and improving margins will feature more heavily this year.”

As IHS iSuppli reported earlier this year, Apple was the top smartphone seller during the fourth quarter, moving 37 million iPhones, as well as 15.4 million iPads and 5.2 million Macs.

Records Smashed

“It also smashed the record for the most smartphones shipped globally by any single vendor in one quarter,” wrote Canalys, “beating Nokia’s previous record of 28.3 million shipped in Q4 2010.”

Unlike IHS, however, Canalys found Apple to have additionally displaced Nokia as the leading smartphone vendor for the year, on shipments of 93.1 million iPhones in 2011. According to its figures, Samsung followed with sales of 91.9 million units, with a third-place Nokia shipping 77.3 million smartphones globally.

IHS instead gave the year’s top-seller crown to Samsung, reporting that it shipped 95 million units to Apple’s 93 million iPhones. Nokia, it agreed, shipped in the neighbourhood of 77 million, down from 100 million a year ago.

The difference may be due to a Canalys peculiarity. Citing Samsung’s 91.9 million units for the year, it added, “This excludes shipments of rebranded products, such as the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus, which Canalys counts under the Google brand.”

Nokia Optimism

Canalys analysts, as others before them, pointed to a pent-up demand for the iPhone 4S, to explain Apple’s late surge.

They also noted that Samsung’s Galaxy S II performed particularly well and called Nokia’s figures, despite the year-on-year fall, “cause for optimism,” though added that Nokia must act quickly to transition from Symbian to Windows Phone and, with Microsoft, work to drive worldwide excitement for the brand.

Android devices held a 52 percent market share for the fourth quarter, to Apple iOS’s 23 percent, Symbian’s 12 percent and RIM BlackBerry’s 8 percent. For the full year 2011, Android’s share was 49 percent, up 244 percent year on year, and iOS held 19 percent, showing 96 percent annual growth, while Symbian took a 16 percent share, down nearly 30 percent, and BlackBerry, with 5 percent growth, held an 11 percent share.