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‘Heydays’ in China’s smartphone market are over

Hon ning tse | Moment | Getty Images

Days of blockbuster growth in China's smartphone sector have come to an end as mobile carriers scale back on subsidies and the market approaches saturation, according to IDC.

Smartphone shipments to China totaled 105 million units in the third quarter, up just 1 percent on quarter and 11 percent on year, lagging growth in the rest of the region.

By comparison, shipments to Asia-Pacific ex-Japan rose 6 percent from the previous quarter and 24 percent from the year ago period.

"China has seen the last of the heydays of heady growth in the smartphone market," said Kiranjeet Kaur, senior market analyst, Asia/Pacific client devices group at IDC.

A major factor behind this is the bulk of mobile phone users in the mainland have now migrated to smartphones from feature phones, Kaur said.

More than 80 percent of China's 885 million mobile phone users are using smartphones, according to IDC.

Widespread smartphone adoption illustrates that China is becoming a mature market, said Kaur. One difference between China and other mature markets is that most of the smartphone demand is concentrated in the low-cost segment.

Reduced subsidies

Mobile carriers are taking steps to reduce subsidies that helped make high-end devices more affordable for consumers in the largest smartphone market, Kaur said, another factor behind slowing growth.

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In August, China Mobile, the world's largest carrier, said it would cut this year's handset subsidies to 21 billion yuan ($3.4 billion) from 34 billion yuan it originally planned as part of efforts to improve profitability, according to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

"Initially, the government was trying to get people onto smartphones, so there were a lot of subsidies provided. Now consumers have to pay a bit more, so that has damped prospects.

Indian demand

As demand growth in China slows, India is picking up the slack.

Shipments to the world's third largest smartphone market totaled 23 million units in the third quarter, up 27 percent on quarter and 82 percent on year.

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Increased smartphone adoption is driving growth. Currently, around 20 percent of India's 770 million mobile phone users are on a smartphone.

On top of this, mobile phone vendors are increasing their distribution network reach beyond tier 1 and 2 cities.

While China will remain a priority for smartphone makers due to its sheer scale of the market, other emerging market in Asia are becoming an increasing focus for them, said Kaur.

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Xiaomi, for example, has made a big push into India and Indonesia.

Since it entered the Indonesian market in September, the Chinese budget smartphone maker has sold over 100,000 Redmi 1S – its cheapest phone selling for around $120- and Redmi Note phones - its phone-tablet hybrid, the WSJ reported.