Once again, Samsung's smartphone successes have come at Apple's expense.
In its latest report, research firm IDC revealed Friday that even though robust iPhone 5 sales helped goose Apple's total smartphone sales in its most recent quarter by 6.6 percent over the same quarter last year, it was not enough to keep archrival Samsung from extending its big-footed share of the market.
Thanks to its smorgasbord of different products, along with inexpensive prices that make Apple's products seem Tiffanyesque by comparison, Samsung's global smartphone market share rose in the first quarter of 2013 from 28.8 percent to 32.7 percent. Apple's share, much like its stumbling stock price over the past year, dropped to 17.3 percent, down from 23 percent a year earlier.
"Clearly the growth for Apple and everyone else is in the emerging markets, while the developed markets where Apple dominates are becoming saturated and growth is clearly slowing," said Laurence Balter, an analyst at Oracle Investment Research. "Its market-share will continue to shrink until Apple gets its head out of the sand and starts putting out improved and unique technology. Otherwise, they're going to continually play catch-up to Samsung, which right now is eating their lunch."
Despite strong sales of the iPhone 5 in the most recent quarter, when Apple sold 37.4 million of the devices, a flood of cheaper Android-powered phones from the South Korean maker lifted Samsung's shipments about 60 percent to 70.7 million. In fact, in the first quarter Samsung shipped more smartphones than the next four vendors -- Apple, LG, Huawei and ZTE -- combined, IDC said.
Neither Apple nor Samsung could be immediately reached for comment. But some analysts cautioned against assuming Apple was caught in a death spiral just because it's been steadily losing market share to its main rival. They point out that when placed side-by-side with competitors by measures such as customer satisfaction and usage patterns, Apple usually wins by a wide margin. So while it may not sell as many phones as its rivals, it conceivably will hold on to its customers for the long haul, giving Apple the opportunity to sell users even more of the gadgets populating its sprawling ecosystem.
"If you looked, for example, at the premium end of the smartphone market, Apple would dominate," said analyst Ben Bajarin with Creative Strategies. "Not all segments of a market are created equal, so you have to keep that in mind when you're just looking, say, at unit sales."
As Bajarin points out, "even if you have 40 percent of unit sales in the lower end part of the market, you might not be making as much money or be as healthy as a company dominating a different segment."
According to the IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, the global mobile phone market grew 4 percent from a year earlier in what it called "the seasonally slow first quarter of 2013." For the first time, said ICD, smartphones sales beat out sales of so-called feature phones. Contrary to its name, the latter type doesn't carry as many features as a smartphone.
"Apple has held the second spot in the smartphone rankings for the past five quarters," said the report. "Apple's mix of models shipped to market is increasingly diversified as it tries to reach new buyers."
Yet while Apple continues to tweak the prices of its products, for example by selling marked-down versions of its older generation iPhone as newer models are launched, it's still unclear whether Apple will unveil a new, or perhaps cheaper, iPhone later this year. At this week's earnings announcement, when Apple showed a year-over-year profit decline for the first time in a decade, CEO Tim Cook hinted to analysts that it would be at least September before any new product launches.
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689; follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc.