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Did Huawei surpass Apple?

In recent years, Huawei has emerged as a top global smartphone brand and a serious rival to Apple. There has been much speculation about whether Huawei has managed to overtake Apple in worldwide smartphone sales. In this article, we’ll examine the latest sales figures and market share data to determine if Huawei has truly surpassed Apple to become the world’s second largest smartphone vendor.

Huawei’s Rise

Huawei is a Chinese technology company founded in 1987 that initially focused on manufacturing phone switches. In the early 2000s, it entered the telecommunications equipment space and started developing smartphones in the late 2000s. Huawei found success in its domestic market in China as well as in emerging markets in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

In the early 2010s, Huawei invested heavily in research and development and began releasing flagship smartphones that could compete directly with popular models from Apple and Samsung. Huawei emphasized craftsmanship and offered phones with premium specs and design at lower prices than the competition. This allowed Huawei to grow rapidly in market share, especially in China and Europe.

By 2016, Huawei had become the third largest smartphone maker worldwide, solidifying its status as a major player. Huawei continued to aggressively expand its market share in the following years. Its sales skyrocketed in 2019 in particular, driven by the strong reception to its flagship P30 and Mate 30 series. In 2020, Huawei surpassed Apple in global smartphone shipments for the first time, taking second place behind Samsung.

Apple’s Decline

After defining the modern smartphone with the launch of the inaugural iPhone in 2007, Apple enjoyed tremendous success and record-breaking sales through the next decade. It peaked in 2015 when it sold over 230 million iPhones globally. However, since 2016, Apple’s dominance has slowly declined for several reasons:

  • Lack of innovation – The iPhone’s design and features remained largely stagnant over several product generations.
  • Price hikes – Apple set premium prices for its phones as high as $1,099 for the top iPhone 11 Pro model.
  • Saturation – The smartphone market became saturated as most people who want a smartphone already own one.
  • Competition – Major players like Samsung and Huawei offered strong flagship phone alternatives.
  • China slump – Apple struggled to attract Chinese consumers recently as nationalism rose.

As a result, iPhone sales and market share dropped significantly from 2016 to 2020. Apple’s global smartphone shipments declined over 30% from their peak. This downward trajectory has allowed competitors like Huawei to eat away at Apple’s market lead.

Huawei Takes the Lead in 2020

According to data from analytical firms like Canalys, IDC, and Counterpoint Research, Huawei shipped more smartphones globally than Apple in 2020. This marked the first calendar year that Huawei surpassed Apple to become the world’s number two smartphone vendor behind market leader Samsung.

Here are the estimated worldwide smartphone shipments and market share for 2020 according to preliminary data from IDC:

Vendor 2020 Shipments 2020 Market Share
Samsung 253.8 million 20.0%
Huawei 189.0 million 14.9%
Apple 183.6 million 14.5%

As shown in the table, Huawei comfortably surpassed Apple with an estimated 189 million phones shipped versus 183.6 million for Apple. For reference, Samsung maintained its top position with 253.8 million shipments and 20% market share globally.

Huawei’s strong numbers were driven by steady sales and growth in China, its home market. China accounted for over 70% of Huawei’s total phone shipments. Huawei also performed well in parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia outside of China.

However, Apple continued to dominate smartphone sales in the high-income markets like North America where premium phones are preferred. And Apple generates far more revenue per phone than Huawei off its high price points.

Huawei’s Challenges

While it is an impressive achievement, Huawei’s lead over Apple remains narrow and tenuous. Huawei faces some substantial headwinds that could hamper its growth in 2021 and beyond:

  • U.S. sanctions – Trade sanctions from the U.S. government has made it difficult for Huawei to source components and software like Google’s Android system.
  • 5G deployment – Huawei is behind in launching 5G compatible phones which could affect adoption.
  • Political pressure – Rising negative sentiments about China has led some markets to shun Huawei phones.
  • Competition – Xiaomi, Oppo, and other Chinese rivals are grasping for Huawei’s market share.

These challenges for Huawei come as Apple is primed for a rebound. The new iPhone 12 line with 5G support could drive an upgrade cycle and boost sales. Apple’s ecosystem lock-in also makes it hard for users to switch brands once invested.


Based on the smartphone shipment data for 2020, it appears Huawei did narrowly overtake Apple to become the second largest smartphone vendor worldwide last year. This represents a major achievement in Huawei’s goal of dominating the global mobile market.

However, Apple likely won’t cede its position easily given its brand loyalty and the momentum of 5G iPhone models. Huawei may struggle to retain the lead in 2021 given its lack of access to key software and components. Political tensions and competition from fellow Chinese brands also threaten Huawei’s market share gains.

The smartphone market will remain volatile as Samsung, Apple, and Huawei battle for supremacy over the next few years. Huawei faces ongoing challenges to sustain its success while Apple is primed for a comeback. As such, Huawei’s lead seems tenuous, and it is too early to declare that they have truly surpassed Apple.

Apple’s iPhone Sales 2010-2020

Here is a table showing Apple’s global iPhone sales from 2010 to 2020. It illustrates Apple’s steady growth up until 2015 followed by a sharp decline in shipments in recent years which enabled Huawei to overtake them in 2020:

Year iPhone Sales (millions)
2010 47
2011 93
2012 136
2013 151
2014 169
2015 232
2016 212
2017 217
2018 208
2019 193
2020 184

Huawei Smartphone Sales 2018-2020

This table presents Huawei’s smartphone shipments worldwide over the past three years as they pushed past Apple:

Year Huawei Sales (millions)
2018 206
2019 240
2020 189

Huawei’s sales exploded in 2018 and 2019 but then declined in 2020 likely due to the U.S. sanctions. But the momentum of the previous years allowed them to overtake Apple.

Top 5 Smartphone Vendors Market Share 2020

This table shows the estimated market share percentages of the top 5 smartphone vendors worldwide in 2020:

Vendor Market Share 2020
Samsung 20.0%
Huawei 14.9%
Apple 14.5%
Xiaomi 11.5%
Oppo 10.7%

The data illustrates the dominant position of Samsung, followed very closely by Huawei and Apple who are separated by just 0.4% in market share.

Huawei Smartphone Revenue 2016-2020

While Huawei sold more phones than Apple in 2020, Apple likely generated over 3X as much revenue as seen in the table below:

Year Huawei Revenue (billions)
2016 $15
2017 $27
2018 $52
2019 $66
2020 $71

Apple’s iPhone revenue over the same period:

Year Apple Revenue (billions)
2016 $136
2017 $141
2018 $166
2019 $142
2020 $137

This demonstrates Apple’s advantage in monetizing premium phones at higher prices and margins.

Smartphone Market Share in China 2020

The Chinese market will play a pivotal role in determining if Huawei can retain the #2 position globally. Here are the estimated market shares in China for 2020:

Vendor Market Share in China 2020
Huawei 41.4%
Vivo 18.7%
Oppo 16.8%
Xiaomi 12.0%
Apple 8.3%

Huawei has a dominant 41% share in its domestic market, while Apple lags at just 8%. Maintaining strength in China will be critical for Huawei outpacing Apple globally.

Apple iPhone Sales in China 2015-2020

Apple’s declining sales in China have contributed to Huawei overtaking them worldwide. iPhone sales in China peaked in 2015 and have dropped significantly since:

Year iPhone Sales in China (millions)
2015 58
2016 45
2017 41
2018 34
2019 28
2020 20

Recovering momentum in China will be an uphill battle for Apple against entrenched local brands like Huawei, Oppo, Vivo, and Xiaomi.

Outlook for 2021 and Beyond

Analyzing the 2020 numbers in context provides a murky outlook regarding whether Huawei can maintain its lead over Apple in 2021 and the coming years:

  • Huawei’s 2020 numbers likely benefitted from strong early year sales before U.S. sanctions took effect, so the true sales gap between them and Apple may be smaller going forward.
  • Political scrutiny of Huawei could limit their access to components critical to smartphone production and sales in major western markets.
  • Apple seems poised for a resurgence with 5G iPhone 12 models and loyal brand perception that should drive upgrades.
  • Growth from competitors like Xiaomi and Oppo will make it harder for Huawei to sustain its market share, especially in crucial markets like China and Europe.

On the other hand, Huawei does have some factors working in its favor:

  • Huawei phones are generally priced lower than Apple which could appeal to budget-conscious consumers, especially in developing markets.
  • Their phones and 5G network equipment remain high-quality, even if reliant on in-house Kirin chips rather than Qualcomm.
  • Brand loyalty and nationalism should continue to give Huawei a strong base in the vital Chinese market.
  • Huawei can leverage its broader ecosystem of products like laptops, tablets, and wearables to boost stickiness.

On balance, it seems unlikely Huawei will be able to pull decisively ahead of Apple in 2021 and beyond. Global political and economic conditions seem aligned against Huawei in many ways. However, they have proven remarkably resilient so far and can’t be counted out if they execute well on product innovation and marketing. But the odds seem stacked in Apple’s favor for reclaiming the #2 spot behind Samsung over the next year.