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Apple's 5G iPhone debut shored up a weak global smartphone market at the end of 2020.
Worldwide iPhone sales jumped 14.9% in the fourth quarter, according to Gartner. Apple sold 79.9 million phones to overtake Samsung's 62.1 million and become the quarter's top smartphone manufacturer. The last time Gartner had Apple in the No. 1 was in the fourth quarter of 2016.
In January, IDC reported that Apple shipped 90.1 million phones to retailers in the fourth quarter, topping second-place Samsung's 73.9 million shipments.
Overall, the smartphone market slipped by 5.4% in the final quarter of 2020, a better showing than the double-digit percentage drops seen earlier in the year, Gartner reported Monday.
"The sales of more 5G smartphones and lower-to-mid-tier smartphones minimized the market decline," Gartner analyst Anshul Gupta said.
Smartphone sales declined by 12.5% in 2020. Though Apple won the fourth quarter, Samsung was the most successful manufacturer of the year, garnering 18.8% of the market to Apple's second-place 14.8%. Apple released its iPhone 12 line in fall 2020.
Apple has overcome consumer reluctance about 5G phones. Lackluster 5G speeds in the U.S. and high prices for flagship phones had dulled buyer enthusiasm for new devices. By selling the base model iPhone 12 at below $1,000, Apple has made 5G available at a price acceptable to consumers.
"The fact that Apple now finally has four models with 5G available ignited a super upgrade cycle," said Gartner analyst Annette Zimmermann. She added that she expects strong iPhone sales to continue for the next six months.
Gartner and IDC both predict smartphone sales growth in 2021. IDC expects the worldwide average selling price for 5G phones to drop from $611 in 2020 to $582 this year. With cheaper 5G phones available, industry observers said more consumers are likely to upgrade.
Mike Gleason is a reporter covering end-user computing topics such as desktop management. He previously covered communities in the MetroWest region of Massachusetts for the Milford Daily News, Walpole Times, Sharon Advocate and Medfield Press. He has also worked for newspapers in central Massachusetts and southwestern Vermont and served as a local editor for Patch. He can be found on Twitter at @MGleason_TT.