iPhone upgrades in China help Apple reclaim title of world’s top smartphone brand

January 28, 2021, 9:49 AM UTC

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Apple returned to its position as the world’s largest smartphone brand in the fourth quarter last year, shipping 81.8 million iPhones worldwide—the most it has ever moved in a quarter, according to market research firm Canalys.

“The iPhone 12 is a hit,” Canalys analyst Vincent Thielke said as the market research firm released its report Thursday. According to the report, iPhone shipments in the last quarter almost doubled from the 43 million units Apple shipped in the third quarter, when Beijing-based Xiaomi snuck ahead of the Cupertino giant with 47 million units and claimed third place in worldwide sales for the first time.

At the time, analysts suggested that Apple’s sluggish sales were because of the delayed launch of the 5G-ready iPhone 12, which was postponed from the third to the fourth quarter of 2020. Sure enough, with the new iPhone now available, Apple’s smartphone sales have rocketed back, putting Apple in first place in shipments; Samsung is in second and Xiaomi in third.

“I think you’ve seen that our performance has been particularly strong in China, where we’ve seen phenomenal customer response that probably [was due to] some level of pent-up demand for 5G iPhones,” Apple chief financial officer Luca Maestri said on an earnings call Wednesday.

On Wednesday, Apple announced results for its quarter ending in December, reporting revenue over $100 billion for the first time. In Greater China—an area including Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau as well as mainland China—Apple reported $21 billion in sales, up from $13.5 billion in the same period a year earlier.

“China had a record number of [iPhone] upgraders during the quarter—the most we’ve ever seen in a quarter,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said Wednesday, attributing “some portion” of that uptick to consumers delaying iPhone upgrades once rumors of a 5G-ready phone began circulating in the first half of the year.

In a separate interview with Reuters, Cook said Apple had “two of the top three selling smartphones in urban China” last quarter. But, at the same time, Cook is reluctant to pin all of Apple’s fourth-quarter success in China on the iPhone, telling analysts on Wednesday that the company did well there “across the board.”