Gartner: Apple’s iPhone unit sales suffered worst quarterly decline since first quarter of 2016

Global sales of smartphones to end users stalled in the fourth quarter of 2018, totaling 408.4 million units — growth of just 0.1 percent over the fourth quarter of 2017, according to Gartner, Inc. Apple recorded its worst quarterly decline (11.8 percent) since the first quarter of 2016.

“Demand for entry-level and mid-price smartphones remained strong across markets, but demand for high-end smartphones continued to slow in the fourth quarter of 2018,” said Anshul Gupta, senior research director at Gartner, in a statement. “Slowing incremental innovation at the high end, coupled with price increases, deterred replacement decisions for high-end smartphones. This led to a flat-growth market in the fourth quarter of 2018 (see Table 1).”

Table 1: Worldwide Smartphone Sales to End Users by Vendor in 4Q18 (Thousands of Units)
Gartner: Worldwide Smartphone Sales to End Users by Vendor in 4Q18 (Thousands of Units)
Due to rounding, numbers may not add up precisely to the totals shown
Source: Gartner (February 2019)

Apple Experienced Biggest Decline Among the Top Five Smartphone Vendors

Sales of Apple iPhones hit 64.5 million units in the fourth quarter of 2018, a decline of 11.8 percent year over year. This double-digit decline made Apple experience the biggest decline in growth for the quarter among the top five global smartphone vendors. Apple saw iPhone demand weaken in most regions, except North America and mature Asia/Pacific. Apple’s sales declined most in Greater China, where its market share dropped to 8.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018 from 14.6 percent in the corresponding quarter of 2017. For 2018 as a whole, iPhone sales were down 2.7 percent, to just over 209 million units.

“Apple has to deal not only with buyers delaying upgrades as they wait for more innovative smartphones, but it also continues to face compelling high-price and midprice smartphone alternatives from Chinese vendors. Both these challenges limit Apple’s unit sales growth prospects,” added Mr. Gupta.

At the high end, Samsung smartphones such as the Galaxy S9, S9+ and Note9 struggled to drive growth in the fourth quarter of 2018. In the midtier, Xiaomi and Huawei continued to grab more market share. As a result, Samsung’s smartphone sales declined by 4.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018. Samsung lost market share in Greater China, Western Europe and Latin America, which contributed greatly to an overall 8.2 percent fall in its smartphone sales in 2018.

“Although Samsung is strengthening its smartphone offering at the midtier, it continues to face growing competition from Chinese brands that are expanding into more markets. It also faces difficulty bringing significant innovation to high-end smartphones,” said Mr. Gupta. “Samsung introduced new midtier-focused M series smartphones in the first quarter of 2019 to compete with aggressive Chinese manufacturers in emerging markets, and to expand into the online sales channel.”

2018 was strong for Huawei

In the fourth quarter of 2018 Huawei sold over 60 million smartphones and achieved the strongest growth of the quarter among the top five global smartphone vendors (37.6 percent). Huawei grew throughout 2018, to close the gap with Apple. “Beyond its strongholds of China and Europe, Huawei continued to increase its investment in Asia/Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East, to drive further growth,” said Mr. Gupta. “Huawei also exploited growth opportunities through continued expansion of the Honor series in the second half of 2018, especially in emerging markets, which helped Huawei grow its market share to 13.0 percent in 2018.”

In 2018 as a whole, global sales of smartphones to end users grew 1.2 percent year over year, to 1.6 billion units (see Table 2). North America, mature Asia/Pacific and Greater China recorded the worst declines of the year, at 6.8 percent, 3.4 percent and 3.0 percent, respectively. “In mature markets, demand for smartphones largely relies on the appeal of flagship smartphones from the top three brands — Samsung, Apple and Huawei — and two of them recorded declines in 2018,” added Mr. Gupta.

Table 2: Worldwide Smartphone Sales to End Users by Vendor in 2018 (Thousands of Units)
Gartner: Worldwide Smartphone Sales to End Users by Vendor in 2018 (Thousands of Units)
Due to rounding, numbers may not add up precisely to the totals shown
Source: Gartner (February 2019)

Further information is available in the Gartner report titled ” Market Share: PCs, Ultramobiles and Mobile Phones, All Countries, 4Q18 Update.”

Source: Gartner, Inc.

MacDailyNews Take: Keep in mind that without Apple reporting actual iPhone unit sales (or iPad or Mac), these are guesstimates. In January, for example, Strategy Analytics estimated that Apple shipped 65.9 million iPhones in calendar Q418.

That said:

Units don’t matter. There are only so many quality users on the planet. Keeping them happy, as every measure of customer satisfaction shows Apple has amazingly well done to date, is what matters. As long as the users buy apps on the App Store, subscribe to Apple Music, add iCloud storage, use Apple Pay, etc., they can replace their hardware with Apple hardware at their own pace.

iPhone has higher customer satisfaction than Android, meaning that Apple gains iPhone users from Android via normal churn as users graduate to real iPhones.MacDailyNews, January 21, 2019

Yes, the iPhone replacement cycle is lengthening, but with so many iPhone (and iPad) users and with customer satisfaction so high, it really doesn’t matter. The market is mature and there are only so many quality users on the planet. Apple has that market cornered. The types of people who’ve settled for Android aren’t likely to buy as many apps or subscribe to services. They want free. They’re not worth much after the sale. The iPhone knockoff peddlers like Samsung can have them.

This is, of course, Apple’s point with ceasing the reporting of unit sales. It’s the user base, the quality of the user base, and services that matter more now. That’s where the growth is and where it will be for many, many years to come.MacDailyNews, January 5, 2019

IDC: Samsung edges Apple as smartphone woes continue with worldwide shipments down 4.9% in holiday quarter – January 30, 2019
Strategy Analytics: Apple shipped 65.9 million iPhones during holiday 2018 quarter – January 30, 2019


  1. Huawei may be doing well now but in a year there will be another cheap vendor grabbing the growth prize.
    I know this isn’t important for the market but how much money is Huawei making out of this. Probably breaking even. No one will remember them in 5 years.
    The trade war plus Apple’s pricing for the flagship models are also having an effect.

    1. There is always some smartphone vendor in China who grabs market share for a year or two and then fizzles out. Certainly, that’s what had happened to Xiaomi which was supposed to be the iPhone killer company. However, all the news media talks about is the current hot company grabbing huge amounts of market share even though it’s not likely sustainable. We’d have to see their financial books to see if they’re making much in the way of profit.

      There are a number of things working against Apple in China. The higher iPhone prices, Chinese consumer loyalty to domestic brands and widespread use of WeChat which will run well on low-end smartphones. I’m sure upgrade cycles will be longer for all smartphone companies and not just Apple.

      This is why I think Apple should simply pursue other revenue streams if their iPhone business has gone belly-up. They have enough spare cash to acquire other businesses. Apple isn’t going to make any headway in a saturated smartphone market that will likely turn into a price war. How many features can any company put into a smartphone to make it much better than the competition in order to boost sales?

      At least Apple is now trying to monetize its large iPhone base which they should have been doing all along. I don’t know if it will turn out all that well, but I’m hoping for the best. Chinese consumers may no longer have any need for iPhones if they have an app such as WeChat that can do all they need to do using some cheap Android smartphone. But that will hurt most smartphone companies along with Apple.

      Everyone seems to forget that Nokia had 46% global cellphone market share when they collapsed. If a company is going to fail, having high market share isn’t necessarily going to prevent that from happening.

      1. If prices are affordable enough, it may be the case in China that handsets will continue to be replaced regularly, softening any overall Android unit loss across vendors. WeChat may require minor HW improvements that could encourage continued sales of handsets. IMO short upgrade cycles are dependent on what can be afforded and the attractiveness of any new features.

        Nokia was slow to jump on the smartphone bandwagon. Apple and competitors won’t really face the same situation until another paradigm shift in devices. “Foldable” might just be the next step since it tends to merge the smartphone with a small tablet in most current designs. An onboard Assistant that does not require a constant data connection to do at least basic functions would also greatly help.

  2. As guesstimates go, since Apple rarely changes prices across markets numbers should be close to the actual. All bets for guessing unit sales on other OEMs are off should they also go and not report unit sales.

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