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iPhone sales soar in Japan, Korea and China

Apple's shift to big-screened smartphones is proving just the ticket to winning over consumers in key Asian markets -- including rival Samsung's home turf.

The Apple iPhone 6 (left) and iPhone 6 Plus have won Apple more sales across Asia. Apple

Apple has set sales records for itself in Japan, Korea and China courtesy of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, according to Counterpoint Research.

In Japan, Apple won 51 percent of all smartphone sales in November, Counterpoint said in a blog post Wednesday. Japan has traditionally been a strong region for Apple, but now "it is becoming increasingly difficult for competition to challenge Apple's dominance in near- to mid-term," Counterpoint noted. The growing audience of iPhone users in Japan may also benefit the adoption of the upcoming Apple Watch.

As consumers took a fancy to big-screened phones, Apple was late to the party compared with its Android rivals. Acknowledging the demand, the company finally released the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus last September in hopes of winning back customers and market share. That strategy seems to be paying off, not just in the US and other countries but in South Korea where chief rival Samsung has dominated.

In Samsung's home base of South Korea, Apple accounted for 33 percent of all smartphones sales in November.

"No foreign brand has gone beyond the 20 percent market share mark in the history of Korea's smartphone industry," Counterpoint's Korean research director Tom Kang said in a statement. "It has always been dominated by the global smartphone leader, Samsung. But iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have made a difference here, denting the competition's phablet sales. Korea being the world's highest penetrated phablet market (handsets with 5 inches above screens) earnestly needed a large screen iPhone for quite a time and now this thirst has been quenched."

Apple's slice of sales in Korea could have been higher had the company's supply been able to reach demand.

"If there was a better supply of iPhone 6 & 6 Plus 64GB & 128GB models during the month, then Apple's share could have climbed to the 40 percent level," Kang noted.

That big a piece of the pie would have truly challenged Samsung's share, which came in at 46 percent over the same period.

In China, iPhone sales grew more than 45 percent annually in November, triggering a record high in monthly sales volumes. Counterpoint attributed the gain to "rich urban Chinese consumers" attracted to the new iPhone's form factor. Apple's 12 percent market share in China pushed it into third place behind dominant local players Xiaomi and Lenovo, with no small help from the new iPhone.

"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."

Apple initially ran into trouble launching the new iPhones in China. The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus went on sale in the US and other countries on September 19, but China wasn't on the invite list due to a delay in regulatory approval of the new phones. The country's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology had to approve the new iPhones for network access before retailers could officially start selling them. That approval finally came through in late September, with sales launching in October.

Globally, Apple's iPhone sales jumped by 26 percent annually in November 2014 over the same month in 2013. Sales were boosted not only by the new iPhone 6 handsets but also by the older and less pricey iPhone 5S and 5C, aimed at prepaid customers in emerging markets, Counterpoint said. By tapping into the increasingly popular big-screened phone market, Apple both challenged Samsung and made up for sinking demand for the iPad tablet, according to Counterpoint.

"By launching iPhone 6 Plus, Apple killed two birds with one stone -- firstly, jumping into the fast growing phablet segment and recapturing the share lost to Samsung's popular Note series in the premium smartphone category," Counterpoint research director Peter Richardson said. "Secondly, offsetting the lackluster demand for iPads and targeting users looking for a single device and thus in turn recognizing even greater contribution to the top-line and bottom-line from the iPhone 6 Plus than it would have been able to generate from the iPad Mini."