iPhone snags top spot in China for first time, says research firm

Shipments of Apple's iPhones, namely the 6 and 6 Plus, have outshined lower-priced rivals, says Canalys.

The iPhone snagged the top spot in China last quarter, says one research firm. CNET

The iPhone is now the top smartphone in China based on units shipped, according to data released Tuesday by research firm Canalys.

Demand for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in China last quarter was the trigger for Apple to win the No. 1 spot in the country for the first time, Canalys said. Given that the retail price of the iPhone is much greater than that of phones made by Chinese vendors, Canalys called this "an amazing result."

Over the previous seven quarters, Apple's highest spot in China's smartphone market was during the first quarter of 2014 when it was in fourth place, according to Canalys.

Home to almost 520 million smartphone users, China is the world's largest smartphone market. The nation's biggest carrier, China Mobile, has more than 800 million customers with 335 million of them cellular subscribers. Apple and Samsung have worked hard to gain more market share in China but have been thwarted by local competitors, such as Xiaomi, Lenovo and Huawei, which offer lower-cost phones that enjoy huge demand. Assuming the data from Canalys is accurate, the new iPhones appear to be the game changers that Apple needed.

"While Chinese smartphone vendors are quickly gaining ground internationally, Apple has turned the tables on them in their home market," Canalys said. "The company is finally riding the large screen and LTE trends in China, which have been vital to its success, along with a well-timed launch and a clampdown on grey exports of its products out of Hong Kong. The top four vendors in Q4 in China by units shipped were Apple, Xiaomi, Samsung and Huawei, respectively."

Shipments refer to the number of items a manufacturer or vendor sends to retail outlets. Sales refers to the actual number of items purchased by customers. For hot products, shipments and sales may be virtually identical. In most other cases, however, not every item shipped to a retail store is going to be sold to a customer.

Other research firms have picked up a surge for Apple in China during the last quarter, which was Apple's first fiscal quarter of 2015.

Apple is due to announce its earnings results for the last quarter later on Tuesday.

iPhone sales rose more than 45 percent annually in China in November, according to Counterpoint Research, setting a record in monthly sales volume. Counterpoint attributed the gain to "rich urban Chinese consumers" attracted to the new iPhone's form factor. For November, Counterpoint pegged Apple with a 12 percent share of the smartphone market, placing it ahead of Samsung with 9 percent but behind Xiaomi and Lenovo with 18 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

"iPhone 6 was the most popular iPhone model during November accounting for more than two-thirds of the total iPhone sales," Counterpoint research director Neil Shah said. "However, with improving supply of iPhone 6 Plus we believe the iPhone 6 Plus sales will contribute to a greater proportion of the sales mix in December and during the Chinese holiday season in Q1 2015."

The surge in China could also create a new top market for Apple. For the last quarter, Apple may reveal that it sold more iPhones in China than in the US for the first time, according to the Financial Times.

Citing forecasts from analysts at UBS, the Financial Times said that China may have snagged 36 percent of all iPhone shipments last quarter, higher than the 24 percent for the US. During the same period last year, the US accounted for 29 percent of all iPhone shipments, while China grabbed 22 percent. The analysts cited two reasons for the iPhone's surge in China -- Apple's deal with China Mobile in December 2013 to carry the iPhone and the release of the iPhone 6 across all three of China's major carriers.

Apple ran into trouble with the release of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus in China. The new iPhones launched on September 19 in several major markets, including the US, UK, Puerto Rico, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, France and Germany. But China wasn't on that list due to regulatory issues over the phone. As a result, the new iPhones didn't actually reach Chinese consumers until a month later, on October 17.

Canalys promised to provide more details on Apple's shipments in China next week when it publishes its quarterly smartphone estimates.

An Apple spokesperson declined CNET's request for comment.

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