You’ll never guess who was the big smartphone winner last quarter

Research firm IDC published its quarterly smartphone sales and market share data on Friday but without clicking the link to read the results, can you guess which company grew its worldwide sales the most last quarter? Apple(s aapl) continues to say that China is important to its iPhone, but it’s not Apple. Samsung is growing quickly all around the world, having displaced Apple as the largest smartphone vendor, but it’s not Samsung either. If you guessed Huawei, you’d be right.
According to IDC, all of the top 5 smartphone vendors showed sales growth in last year’s final quarter: Combined, these companies sold 141.6 million of the total 219.4 smartphones sold in the last three months of 2012. Look at the chart, though, and you’ll note that Huawei grew its final quarter sales by 89.5 percent from the year-ago period. That’s impressive considering the company has essentially no foothold here in the U.S., where we’re practically addicted to our handsets.

IDC smartphones 2012Q4

In fact, Huawei leapfrogged past Sony(s sne) and ZTE in the last quarter as compared to a year ago, jumping from the then-no. 5 smartphone seller to no. 3.
I’ve noted before that the smartphone market is one of momentum: It takes time to build it, but once a company has some, it can keep sales rising for quite a bit. Clearly, Apple and Samsung have had momentum for some time. Apple’s started in 2007 and has chugged along impressively. Samsung didn’t have such momentum at the time and watched its smartphone share dwindle away until it regained motion with the first Galaxy S phone in 2010. Building upon that with a full line of Galaxy devices that improve yearly has completely turned Samsung around from bottom-feeder to market leader.
That doesn’t suggest that Huawei will keep growing and surpass these two; after all, HTC and Motorola(s goog) had momentum at one time which proved short-lived for both.
To be sure, Huawei has a long way to go before it’s considered a rival to either Apple or Samsung. However, being a China-based company — where there are still over a billion people without a smartphone — and a global leader in networking equipment, tells me that Apple and Samsung should be looking over their shoulders at Huawei to see if it keeps quietly catching up.