SMARTPHONES: Huawei Rolls Past Apple

Bottom line: Huawei could challenge Samsung for the global smartphone crown in as little as a year, though a potential Achilles heel could be the “outing” of its surging Honor brand that most may not associate with the Chinese parent.

Huawei passes Apple in global smartphone ranks

Smartphone pioneer Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) has just reported its latest quarterly results, which means that all the data tracking firms can simultaneously release their own industry data showing the latest trends. Those trends show that Apple’s sales were basically flat for in the quarter on a unit basis, even as the bigger story was that the US giant lost its spot as the world’s No. 2 smartphone seller to a surging Huawei during the period.

The big picture is less that Apple is losing market share, and more that Huawei is surging in its march toward market dominance. Part of the reason behind the surge is booming popularity for Huawei’s sub-brand called Honor, which perhaps doesn’t carry the same stigma of the Huawei name.

People who follow these things will know that Huawei is fast gaining a reputation for its high-quality smartphones at reasonable prices, and as one such phone owner I can testify to the reliability of its products. But the question of privacy always looms in the background of any Huawei product, due in no small part to questions about the company’s potential ties to Beijing constantly raised by Washington and increasingly by others like Australia and Britain.

All that said, it could just be a matter of time before someone “outs” Honor as being just an arm of Huawei, which might dampen the company’s growth. But for now at least, it does seem like Huawei is the company to watch in the smartphone realm, and could even challenge slipping leader Samsung (Seoul: 005930) in the next two years.

According to the latest data from IDC, Huawei’s unit sales surged 41 percent in this year’s second quarter, giving it 15.8 percent of the global market. (press release) That allowed Huawei to zip past Apple, whose sales and global market share ticked up slightly, the latter to 12.1 percent, or more than 3 percentage points behind its Chinese rival. Samsung continued to lead the pack with 20.9 percent global share in the second quarter, though that was down by 2 percentage points from a year earlier.

On Track to Pass Samsung?

Some quick math will show that if Huawei can post similar gains for the next year and Samsung continues to post similar losses, the former could theoretically pass the latter to take the global top spot a year from now. But of course things can always change quickly, especially for Apple, since it only does one new product release each year for smartphones, typically around the end of the year.

Speaking of Apple, the company has just released its own quarterly report that shows its iPhone sales were basically flat on a unit sales basis in its latest quarter versus a year ago. (company announcement) Interestingly, the company’s total revenue was up 17 percent over the same period, which implies that higher sale prices were largely responsible for the revenue gains.

That would also explain why Apple reported its Greater China sales rose 19 percent in the quarter through June, even though market-specific data are likely to show the company’s market share in China was roughly unchanged for the period. That probably shows that the company’s performance in China — the world’s largest market — is roughly stable, since it reported a relatively small 2.5 percent growth in shipments in the first quarter.

So what are the key takeaways in all this? The story certainly seems to be one that shows Huawei hitting on all four cylinders, while Samsung continues to slip and Apple bobs around in the 10-15 percent market share range. I do expect Huawei’s growth will plateau at some point, perhaps in the next year, and the brakes could come sooner if any backlash develops against its Honor brand over privacy concerns.

One other company to note is the recently-listed Xiaomi (HKEx: 1810), which also continued to post impressive growth of about 50 percent for the second quarter. That was enough to boost its market share to 9.3 percent, still a ways behind Apple. I’m relatively impressed by this company’s year-old comeback, though still not convinced that comeback has legs. Accordingly, I will need to see at least three or four more quarters of similarly strong growth from Xiaomi before I’m ready to believe this company’s dark days are behind it.


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