Global technology market analyst firm Canalys said the 91 million figure was first passed in the final quarter of 2013.
In the first quarter this year, eight of the top 10 vendors recorded annual declines, with Gionee, Meizu and Samsung falling to less than half of their sales for the corresponding quarter in 2017.
Huawei, including its Honor brand, showed modest gains in the quarter, increasing shipments by 2%, retaining its lead and retaining its market share of about 24%. The company shipped 21 million units for the quarter.
Xiaomi moved ahead of Apple to fourth place and was the sole company to show decent growth, with shipments rising 37% to 12 million units.
The top four — Huawei, Oppo, Vivo, and Xiaomi — accounted for more than 73% of the first quarter shipments.
“The level of competition has forced every vendor to imitate the others’ product portfolios and go-to-market strategies,” said Canalys research analyst Mo Jia.
“But the costs of marketing and channel management in a country as big as China are huge, and only vendors that have reached a certain size can cope.
"While Huawei, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi must contend with a shrinking Chinese market, they can take comfort from the fact that it will continue to consolidate, and that their size will help them last longer than other smaller players."
Xiaomi's showing was due, in part, to its lacklustre showing in 2017. “Xiaomi is the only vendor in the top 5 that is focused on the sub-RMB1000 (about US$160) price segment and it owes close to 90% of its shipments to Redmi. But the vendor is struggling to shed its low-cost image,” said Canalys research analyst Hattie He.
“The launch of the Mi Mix 2S in Paris and the very recent Mi 6X in Wuhan are clear efforts by the company to change customers’ perception of the brand, especially in China, where Xiaomi needs to tempt those looking at Honor, Oppo or Vivo to buy its products.”
Outside the top five, the total marketshare for vendors decreased from 34% in Q1 2017 to 19% a year later. Gionee was worst hit, with shipments down by about 70% to 1.6 million.
But Canalys said after two successive quarters of decline, growth was expected to return in Q2, as Oppo, Vivo and Huawei launched new flagship devices.
“The inventory issues that Oppo and Vivo suffered in Q4 and Q1 are now behind them,” said Jia. “New smartphones will definitely entice people to upgrade, but vendors are more careful of avoiding oversupply in the channel.
"China’s smartphone market may see a short period of stagnancy as vendors refocus on research and development, relying on new use cases to excite refreshes rather than spending heavily on the channel and marketing.”
Graphics: courtesy Canalys