Samsung in sight as Huawei cements second place in slowing smartphone sector

Nick Wood
By Nick Wood

May 1, 2019

  • Apple now a distant third as Q1 iPhone sales slump 30 percent
  • China, Africa, Western Europe driving Huawei volume growth
  • Overall market down 6.6 percent as customers wait for 5G

Samsung is six months and one more gaffe away from losing its place as world's biggest smartphone maker to Huawei.

This is my prediction, based on current performance and perception.

Figures published by IDC late on Tuesday showed Samsung shipped 71.9 million handsets during Q1, down from 78.2 million a year earlier. Huawei meanwhile saw quarterly volume surge year-on-year to 59.1 million units from 39.3 million. That puts it firmly in second spot ahead of Apple, which saw iPhone shipments decline to 36.4 million from 52.2 million.

Huawei has managed to achieve this growth despite an overall decline in the smartphone market too. Global volume, according to IDC, fell 6.6 percent year-on-year to 310.8 million.

"Huawei is now within striking distance of Samsung at the top of the global market," IDC said in a research note.

via IDC, April 2019

via IDC, April 2019

Huawei smartphones are proving popular at the high, mid, and low-end of the market, which is exactly what fuelled Samsung's rise to the top. And when it comes to flagships, which garner the most attention, Huawei's recently-launched P30 Pro, with its nifty Leica camera features, is comfortably proving a match for Samsung's Galaxy S10.

Putting specifications to one side, there is also public perception to consider.

Samsung's reputation still hasn't fully recovered from the exploding Galaxy Note 7 debacle of 2016. Since then, in the aftermath of any flagship Samsung launch, there is a period of time where people wait for reports of devices spontaneously combusting; any sign of such is pounced on by the press.

Sure enough, this week, reports emerged of a customer in South Korea whose Galaxy S10 5G went on fire. Samsung promptly issued a statement saying that the device in question hadn't malfunctioned, but had suffered an "external impact". Nonetheless, reports of a Galaxy phone's fiery fate spread far and wide.

Samsung's reputation suffered another recent setback with the folding phone fiasco. The Galaxy Fold was unveiled to great fanfare in February and was due to hit the shelves in the US and UK on 26 April and 3 May respectively.

Except, that didn't happen.

The launch was postponed after early reviews reported that the folding screen broke after a few days. Not what you want on a device that costs an eye-watering £1,800. Samsung needs to make sure that when the Galaxy Fold does eventually go on sale that the screen works properly, and there is little to no danger of it catching fire. Even though the phone is not meant as a mass market device, all eyes will be watching for the slightest misstep.

Huawei has also shown off a foldable phone, the Mate X, but that hasn't got a launch date yet. This is probably for the best; given what happened to Samsung, Huawei will want to ensure that its own folding screen passes muster.

Huawei also seems to have managed for now to isolate its device business from the controversy surrounding its networks division. Sure, the P30 Pro might not see much uptake from the MAGA-hat-wearing nutter segment of the smartphone market, but that is unlikely to make a big dent on shipment volume.

All this is why I think top-spot of the smartphone market is Huawei's for the taking.

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