iPhone sales growth slows in China

Apple is still the top brand in the world's largest smartphone market, but local rival Huawei is hot on its heels, according to the latest report from Kantar Worldpanel ComTech.

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The iPhone is still king in China, but slower sales growth could help local vendor Huawei steal the crown.

James Martin/CNET

Apple's iPhone remains top dog in China, the world's largest smartphone market, but sales growth there has weakened.

For the three months ended January, the iPhone took home a smartphone market share of 25 percent in urban China, research firm Kantar Worldpanel ComTech said on Wednesday. Though that number helped Apple keep its top spot, the rate of growth was just 1 percent higher than the same quarter a year ago and was the slowest since late 2014, according to Kantar.

Why the slowdown in sales growth?

"Looking at the three months individually, January was the weakest month for Apple in China as more price-sensitive consumers might have been waiting to see what promotions Chinese New Year would bring in early February," Carolina Milanesi, Kantar chief of research, said in a statement.

But Apple is also facing an ailment known as phone fatigue: New models are lacking must-have features needed to get us to upgrade and we're already pretty satisfied with the models we're using. Android phone makers such as Samsung have been hit by the same problem. But specific to Apple, a lack of new features in last year's iPhone 6S and 6S Plus took a toll on sales not just in China, but around the world.

The iPhone 6s, iPhone 6s Plus and iPhone 6, all powered by Apple's iOS mobile software, were still the best-selling smartphones in urban China over the three-month period ended January -- but just barely. Chinese phone maker Huawei continues to show sales momentum, according to Kantar, narrowing the gap with a 24.3 percent market share. And Huawei's Android-powered phones are gaining more traction in other nations.

Across the European Union 5 (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK), Huawei "remained the second-strongest brand in the Android ecosystem, growing to 14 percent in the three months ending January 2016, up from 5 percent in the same period in 2014," Dominic Sunnebo, business unit director at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech Europe, said in a statement. In the UK and France, the company doubled its market share.

Smartphones powered by Google's Android mobile software, in general, showed greater growth over the iPhone in key countries this past quarter. In the US, Google's mobile operating system saw its market share rise by 6.3 percent in the three months ended January, while the iPhone's share slumped by 3.7 percent. Over the same period, Android's share in Italy surged by 11.5 percent, while the iPhone's slice of the market slipped by 3.9 percent. And in France, Android's share rose by 6.5 percent, while the iPhone's fell by almost 1 percent.

Android was particularly adept at grabbing first-time smartphone buyers in key countries such as the United States.

"In the US, the battle to persuade feature phone owners to upgrade to a smartphone was won by Android, which saw nearly a third (30.6) percent of sales come from that segment, compared to 13.7 percent for iOS," Milanesi said. "Among first-time smartphone buyers in the Android ecosystem, Samsung was the top brand purchased, followed by LG, Motorola, and value-driven brands ZTE and Alcatel."

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