How Tight Is Smartphone Market? Xiaomi Joins Samsung, Apple in Top 3 for Only a Few Hours

Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Customers look at Xiaomi Corp. products at the company's showroom in Beijing, China, on Sept. 12, 2014. Close

Customers look at Xiaomi Corp. products at the company's showroom in Beijing, China, on Sept. 12, 2014.

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Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Customers look at Xiaomi Corp. products at the company's showroom in Beijing, China, on Sept. 12, 2014.

Only three years after launching its first mobile device, China's Xiaomi leapt to third place in global smartphone shipments, trailing market leaders Samsung and Apple.

Those bragging rights lasted about 8 hours.

The press release from International Data Corp. at about 10 a.m. Beijing time heralding Xiaomi's rise to the top three in the third quarter, after more than tripling shipments in the period, was followed by one at 6 p.m. from Lenovo announcing the completion of its purchase of Motorola Mobility from Google.

Guess what? Closing the Motorola deal makes Lenovo No. 3, according to Lenovo and analysts at IDC and Strategy Analytics.

The back and forth in rankings highlights how competitive the global smartphone market has become. While Samsung and Apple sit at the top, with market share of 23.8 percent and 12 percent, respectively, the next three players were separated by just 0.2 percentage points before Lenovo absorbed Motorola, according to IDC.

Xiaomi had 5.3 percent of the global market in the third quarter, compared with Lenovo's 5.2 percent before taking over Motorola, while South Korea's LG Electronics had a 5.1 percent share. As this chart shows, the three of them -- before the Motorola news -- were practically in a dead heat in this period.

The race is already so tight that researchers can't agree on the rankings beyond the top three. Like IDC, data from Strategy Analytics has Samsung, Apple and Xiaomi in the lead in the third quarter, but rounds out the top five with LG in fourth with a 5.2 percent share and Huawei Technologies in fifth place with 5.1 percent.

Completing the Motorola acquisition should give Lenovo a bit of breathing room. A combined Lenovo and Motorola would have given it an 8 percent share in the period, putting it well ahead of Xiaomi and Huawei, according to researcher Strategy Analytics.

"With the addition of Motorola, the company is now the third-largest vendor globally in terms of smartphone unit shipments, trailing only Samsung and Apple," said Technology Business Research analyst Jack Narcotta. "Motorola’s stable of devices and intellectual property will help Lenovo corral the chaos in emerging markets such as China and India, allowing Lenovo to vault over Xiaomi, Huawei and LG and establish itself as the default choice for consumers seeking an entry-level or mid-tier Android smartphone."

Xiaomi wouldn't comment about its competitors, but Tony Wei, a spokesman, said the company was "proud of our remarkable growth."

One thing is clear. The fight is far from over.

One reason is that China, the world's largest smartphone market, has become saturated, forcing local vendors to look abroad, Lenovo Chief Executive Officer Yang Yuanqing said in an interview.

"If you only play in China, that's not enough," Yang said. "You must win in the global market."

Look for even more volatility in those quarterly global smartphone rankings.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Edmond Lococo in Beijing at elococo@bloomberg.net

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