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The number of smartphone units shipped this year is expected to exceed feature phone unit shipments, research firm IDC said Monday. The company said it’s the first time in history that such a shipment will occur, if it does. Right now IDC believes that phone makers will ship a total of 918.6 million smartphones during 2013, which will represent a 50.1 percent share of all mobile phone shipments during the year.

China is becoming the most important stage for smartphone launches, primarily because it offers the largest wireless market on the planet. IDC said that low-cost Android smartphones will be a big driver in China, Android already has a 90 percent share of the smartphone market there, but that iOS will have a growing presence, too. India, Brazil and the United Kingdom are also expected to donate to the continued growth of smartphone shipments.

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The United States is the second largest smartphone market in the world, in terms of shipments, with a projected 15 percent share in 2013. It’s followed by the United Kingdom with a 3.9 percent share, Japan with a 3.8 percent smartphone shipment market share, Brazil (3.1 percent), India (3 percent) and other markets (38.4 percent).

IDC also projects that the largest growth between this year and 2017 will occur in India, Brazil and in China, where growth is expected to jump 459 percent, 129.4 percent and 52 percent, respectively.

“While we don’t expect China’s smartphone growth to maintain the pace of a runaway train as it has over the last two years, there continue to be big drivers to keep the market growing as it leads the way to ever-lower smartphone prices and the country’s transition to 4G networks is only just beginning,” IDC senior research manager Melissa Chau said. “Even as China starts to mature, there remains enormous untapped potential in other emerging markets like India, where we expect less than half of all phones shipped there to be smartphones by 2017, and yet it will weigh in as the world’s third largest market.”

China is expected to be a major battleground for Apple this year, especially among rumors that it will launch a low-cost, possibly plastic, iPhone device on the China Mobile, the world’s largest wireless carrier.

Source IDC