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Samsung in trouble? Apple becomes No. 1 smartphone maker

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The pressure is on Samsung in the lead up to its big Unpacked event for the Galaxy S20 and Galaxy Z Flip.

Strategy Analytics said Apple shipped the most phones during the last three months of 2019 — 70.7 million versus 68.8 million for Samsung. Counterpoint Research also put Apple on top, as did Canalys.

The research firms' different numbers paint last fall's iPhone 11release as a big success for Apple — a conclusion backed up by Apple's own quarterly earnings report, which saw iPhone sales return to positive growth after a slump during most of 2019.

A surge for Apple, slump for Samsung

Samsung continued to sit at the top of the world’s smartphone sales for last year with 296.5 units shipped. Apple's late-2019 push, aided in significant part by the iPhone 11’s strong performance, helped it finish the year at 196.2 million units.

But the trend line doesn't look great for Samsung. Last year during Q4 Samsung shipped 69.3 million smartphones, compared to 68.8 million for Q4 2019. Meanwhile, Apple jumped from 65.9 million to 70.7 million.

Cupertino has opened up a market for success with that premium yet still-affordable iPhone $699 model, and will be looking to double down on that in 2020, when it is expected to release as many as five new iPhones in total: a $399 iPhone SE replacement, rumored to be named the iPhone 9, in the first half of this year, and four new iPhone 12 premium models in the fall at various sizes.

However, Samsung does have a bunch of phones of its own on the way, including the Galaxy S20 lineup, the Galaxy Z Flip and both the Galaxy S10 Lite and Galaxy Note 10 Lite, which will give the company more lower-cost options.

Huawei going the wrong way

Huawei shipped nearly 240 million phones last year, according to data from several market analytics firms, allowing it to move ahead of Apple in the race to sell the most smartphones. Samsung continues to be No. 1, having shipped the most smartphones during all of 2019.

So, good news for Huawei, right? Sort of — until you see which way the numbers are trending.

While Huawei moved ahead of Apple for smartphone shipments during the entire year, the fourth quarter was particularly challenging for Huawei. Strategy Analytics reported a drop from 60.5 million units to 56.0 million.

Huawei is still quite strong on China, where it claimed 40% of mobile sales, according to Counterpoint Research. China represented 60% of Huawei’s total shipments for the year, helping the company maintain a 16% share of the global smartphone market.

Indeed, Huawei can skate by without Google software in its home market, where Tencent's WeChat services — from messaging to mobile payments — are ubiquitous. However, that’s not to say Huawei isn’t in danger of losing its grip in other regions.

Huawei spent the latter half of last year on the U.S. Government’s entity list, forbidding it from licensing Google software and services on its Android phones. 

"While Huawei is working on its own operating system," Counterpoint’s report states, "it will almost impossible for it to compete with Android anywhere outside China."