Apple grew faster than any other phone vendor in 2012

A line outside the Apple Store in Hong Kong, December 15, 2012. Credit: See Ming Lee via Flickr

Global sales of mobile phones actually dropped in 2012, according to Gartner -- something that hasn't happened since the economic downturn of 2009. 

The main culprit was falling sales of feature phones, which were down 20% in the fourth quarter of 2012 compared with a year ago. Meanwhile, smartphone sales were up nearly 40% in the same period.

This suggests that the mobile phone market is approaching saturation. Instead of selling to global consumers who are buying their first cell phone, an increasing proportion of sales will be replacement phones, as users swap out feature phones for smartphones.

One might think that the main beneficiaries of this shift will be low-cost Android manufacturers with a global footprint. Indeed, Huawei became one of the top-three smartphone vendors for the first time in Q4 2012.

But if you look at overall mobile phone sales, the biggest gainer from 2011 to 2012 was was Apple. It sold more than 130 million phones in 2012, up 46%. Nobody else was even close in terms of percentages, and only Samsung beat Apple in terms of absolute unit growth.

Mobile phone sales by vendor, 2011 - 2012 (Gartner)
Company Unit sales, 2012 (1000s) Unit sales, 2011 (1000s)  Growth (1000s) Growth (%)
Samsung 384,361 315,052 69,579 22%
Nokia 333,938 422,478 (88,540) -21%
Apple 130,133 89,263 40,870 46%
ZTE 67,344 56,882 10,463 18%
LG 58,016 86,371 (28,355) -33%
Huawei 47,288 40,663 6,625 16%
TCL 37,177 34,038 3,139 9%
RIM 34,210 51,542 (17,332) -34%
Motorola 33,916 40,269 (6,353) -16%
HTC 32,122 43,267 (11,145) -26%
Others 587,400 595,887 (8,487) -1%
Total 1,746,176 1,775,712 (29,356) -2%

In other words, Apple's premium platform strategy seems to be working perfectly well. By maintaining control over the platform, Apple has so far avoided the cutthroat "race to the bottom" competition between Android vendors -- for every Samsung or Huawei who wins, there's an LG or HTC who loses. But Apple has also lowered prices fast enough on older phones to appeal to some cost-conscious consumers.

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