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Smartphone shipments hit a high note in the third quarter

A number of flagship phones vied for attention, but the real growth lies with more modest devices and in emerging markets, says market researcher IDC.

‚ÄčThe curvature of the screen on Samsung's Galaxy S6 Edge+ brings some design panache to the smartphone market.
The curvature of the screen on Samsung's Galaxy S6 Edge brings some design panache to the smartphone market.
Sarah Tew

The latest iPhones and devices from China's Huawei were hot tickets during a near-record quarter for smartphone makers.

Apple shipped 48 million iPhones worldwide during the third quarter, up 22 percent from the same period a year ago, while Huawei shipped 26.5 million smartphones, good for a leap of 61 percent, according to a report released Wednesday by market researcher International Data Corp.

The raw numbers put those two companies in second and third place, respectively, behind market leader Samsung and its 84.5 million smartphones. The South Korean electronics giant, whose smartphone sales have seen better days, recorded much more modest growth of just 6 percent. That growth rate was just under the market average.

China's Lenovo and Xiaomi rounded out the top five.

Altogether, IDC said, smartphone makers shipped 355.2 million units in the third quarter, up 6.8 percent year over year, for the second-best quarter ever for worldwide smartphone shipments.

Apple's iPhones helped drive third-quarter shipments.


That's bound to be welcome news. Smartphone makers have been facing the challenge of piquing consumers' interest in the saturated markets of North America and Europe, and in the once booming economy of China. There's been a sense of smartphone fatigue as recent generations of marquee phones have tended to offer incremental updates instead of the attention-grabbing changes that can ignite sales.

Fortunately, there are lots of takers for more modest phones.

"The third quarter placed a substantial emphasis on flagship devices as vendors tried to outclass each other in both features and design," said Anthony Scarsella, IDC's research manager of mobile phones, in a statement. "However, despite the glitz and glamour at the high end, we still expect the bulk of volume and growth to once again sprout from low to midrange handsets, particularly in emerging markets."

Still, new high-end phones were plentiful in the third quarter. Samsung, for instance, in August offered up the Galaxy Note 5 and the Galaxy S6 Edge+. In September, Cupertino, California-based Apple unveiled its new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. IDC also cited, among other devices, Huawei's Honor 6 Plus and Ascend P8.

None of the top-five companies responded to a request for comment.

Aside from the phones themselves, IDC pointed to notable changes in some markets in the way consumers can now buy smartphones, from unlocked and off-contract offerings to installment plans to early trade-in options.

"Many markets are seeing consumers become more aware of alternative buying options when it comes to paying for their smartphone," IDC's Ryan Reith said in a statement.

Douglas Clinton, an analyst at investment firm Piper Jaffray, sees that shift as more of a factor for the current quarter and beyond than in the just-ended third quarter. "We think changing contracts in the US is going to have a dramatic impact in increasing the frequency that people buy phones," Clinton said.