The mobile phone market had its best year in 2010 since 2006, increasing shipments 18.5% to 1.39 billion worldwide. For the fourth quarter, shipments grew 17.9%, a new quarterly high driven by smartphones, according to new data from IDC.
The figures mark a rebound from 2009, when the market declined 1.6% in the wake of the global recession. A stronger economy and the proliferation of more affordable smartphones lifted the growth rate to its highest level since the 22.6% gain in 2006.
"The mobile phone market has the wind behind its sails," said Kevin Restivo, a senior research analyst at IDC, in a statement. "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."
Highlighting the trend has been the rise of Chinese manufacturer ZTE, which sells mainly lower-cost feature phones in emerging markets, but is expanding its range of devices to include smartphones. ZTE surged past Apple in the fourth quarter to claim the No. 4 slot among the world's top phone makers, with shipments up 76.8% from a year ago to 16.8 million units in the fourth quarter.
Apple slipped to No. 5 despite shipping a record 16.2 million iPhones in the quarter, or 4% share of the global phone market. IDC said Apple and BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion maintained a healthy lead in the U.S., where new entrants like Dell, Huawei and Sanyo launched their first phones in the market.
The firm also noted that 4G took a step forward with the commercial launch of Verizon's 4G LTE network, though there's still a long way to go before higher speed service becomes a reality for most mobile subscribers.
A separate report released by ABI Research Friday estimated the number of handsets and smartphones shipped in the fourth quarter increased 15.6% to 390 million, and 1.36 billion for the year. ABI recently forecast the growing number of smartphones combined with better network performance will push mobile content revenue worldwide to $6 billion.
The firm advises that digital game publishers, music companies and video producers should push ahead with mobile projects. "On the other hand, non-media companies--especially those without content at hand--should take a breath," according to ABI practice director Neil Strother.