Chinese smartphone players are stealing Apple and Samsung's thunder

Huawei, Lenovo, and Xiaomi are the rising stars in mobile.

Chinese smartphone makers market share Huawei Xiaomi Lenovo Apple Samsung 2015 sales

For the longest time, the smartphone market has been dominated by Samsung and Apple, with LG and HTC scratching around the edges. But in 2015, Chinese smartphone makers Huawei, Lenovo, and Xiaomi made the greatest inroads worldwide.

Preliminary data from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker puts sales in the fourth quarter of 2015 at 399.5 million devices, a 5.7% growth compared to the 377.8 million units shipped in the fourth quarter of 2014.

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For the full year, worldwide smartphone sales were 1.43 billion units shipped, shattering the one-year sales record of 1.3 billion units set in 2014 by 10.1%.

Samsung was the unit and market share leader, with 324.8 million units sold in 2015, a 2.1% gain over 2014 and 24.4% total share. Apple was second, with 231.5 million units shipped for 20.2% growth and 14.8% share.

However, in third place was Huawei, with 106.6 million units but a 44.3% gain over 2014. It now holds 7.4% of the total market, which is impressive when you consider that most, if not all, of its share is in China.

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Right behind it was Lenovo, which bought what was left of the Motorola business from Google along with its own home-grown phones. It sold 74 million units and posted a 24.5% gain. In fifth was Xiaomi, the low-cost Chinese vendor that is rapidly growing, again mostly in its native China. It posted a 22.8% gain in 2015.

Now, these three companies are all growth plays. They are still new to the market, so it's easier to record a 44% growth rate for Huawei than it would be for Apple, especially given the iPhone 6s got something of a 'meh' response.

Still, it shows why China is such an important market. Sheer numbers. It helped Apple, too. Apple's overall sales were up just 1% in Q4, but in China, it grew 18%, with half of those new customers first-time iPhone buyers. It also did very well in India, up 76%.

Samsung is the company with something to lose, since it sells Android smartphones, which puts it in direct competition with Huawei, Lenovo, and Xiaomi far more than Apple. Then consider Samsung's slowpoke delivery of updates – which caused a lawsuit – and the lukewarm reception to the Galaxy S6, and you can see why the three competitors did well.

The real test will be when those three push beyond China. Huawei will have the best story, since it made the Google Nexus 6P smartphone, which has earned some considerably positive reviews. Lenovo has the bundling argument. It can make enterprises an offer for servers, desktops, tablets, and smartphones, since it sells them all. Xiaomi will likely take the low-cost route. As always, that remains to be seen.

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