Framingham, Mass. - Worldwide cellphone unit shipments grew by 17.9 percent in the fourth quarter to a new quarterly high of 401.4 million and by 18.5 percent for the full year to 1.39 billion units, IDC found.
Annual sales grew at the highest percentage rate since 2006, when growth peaked at 22.6 percent, IDC said. Growth followed a 2009 full-year decline of 1.6 percent.
IDC attributed the gains to a growing selection of increasingly affordable smartphones. "Mobile phone users are eager to swap out older devices for ones that handle data as well as voice, which is driving growth and replacement cycles," explained senior research analyst Kevin Restivo. "Feature-phone users looking to do more with their devices will flock to smartphones in the years to come," he said. The trend will help drive smartphone unit growth in 2011 to 43.7 percent, he said.
The global phone market "will be driven largely by smartphone growth through the end of 2014," the company added.
In ranking the top-five global vendors, IDC found that Apple slipped to fifth place as Chinese vendor ZTE broke into the top five for the first time, placing fourth. ZTE primarily sells entry-level and midtier feature phones in emerging markets but has made inroads in Western Europe, the U.S. and Japan, IDC said. Some of ZTE's recent success "is directly attributable to its rapidly expanding smartphone line," IDC noted.
More changes in the top five could occur this year, said Ramon Llamas, IDC senior research analyst. Motorola, Research In Motion and Sony Ericsson, all with a "tight focus" on the fast-growing smartphone market, "are well within striking distance to move back into the top-five list," he said.
In ranking the vendors, IDC also found that Nokia's unit volume slipped 2.4 percent in the fourth quarter but that its smartphone volume grew 38 percent compared with the year-ago period.
The statistics also show that Samsung breached the 80 million mark for the first time in the fourth quarter and improved its profit margins for the second straight quarter. Volume was driven by its Galaxy S smartphones, of which almost 10 million were sold in 2010, IDC said. Samsung's mass-market and touchscreen phones earned a strong following in emerging markets, IDC added.
As for Apple, the company made it to the top five for the second consecutive quarter, though its rank fell to fifth from fourth. Apple slipped despite a record quarter for unit shipments. The iPhone sold "particularly well" in developed regions such as North America and Western Europe, IDC noted. Volume will likely rise because Apple has said it could have sold more iPhones in the fourth quarter if it were able to make more. In addition, the iPhone will be available through Verizon Wireless for the first time in the U.S., IDC pointed out.