90.8 million smartphones shipped in China in the fourth quarter of last year, 4 million fewer than in Q3, according to new statistics published on Thursday.
That 4.3% decline came "after nine consecutive quarters of explosive growth," analyst firm IDC said, noting that there were a number of reasons for the slide, including operators removing subsidies on certain devices, channel inventory, and a 4G launch from the market's biggest player. China Mobile's TD-LTE network went live on 18 December, but 4G handsets did not fully reach the market until the current quarter, IDC pointed out.
"The world has increasingly looked to China as the powerhouse to propel the world's smartphone growth and this is the first hiccup we've seen in an otherwise stellar growth path," said Melissa Chau, senior research manager at IDC, in a statement.
"We are now starting to see a market that is becoming less about capturing the low-hanging fruit of first time smartphone users and moving into the more laborious process of convincing existing users why they should upgrade to this year's model," Chau said.
However, she pointed out that there are some key drivers for future growth in China, namely the arrival of the iPhone on China Mobile's network and the migration from 2G and 3G devices to 4G.
Earlier this month IHS Technology predicted that 4G smartphone shipments in China will reach 72.4 million this year, up from 4.6 million in 2013. The market will begin to take off in the second half of the year and in 2015 4G smartphone shipments will number 144.1 million, rising to 298.5 million in 2017, it said.
While there is, of course, still growth potential left in their home market, China's handset makers are increasingly looking to expand overseas, a trend IDC expects to intensify this year.
"Chinese players are getting hungrier to turn themselves into international rather than China-only brands," Chau said. "Nowhere is this more clear than Lenovo's acquisition of Motorola's handset business, and even smaller players, some unknown to much of the world, like Oppo, BBK, Gionee and of course Xiaomi are ramping up on international expansion," she added.
IDC did not mention Chinese giant Huawei, which, according to Strategy Analytics, shipped more than 50 million smartphones in 2013, giving it a 5.1% share of the market and ranking it third globally behind Samsung and Apple.