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Sony lost ground to Samsung in growing smartphone image sensor market in 2020

According to a recent report published by EET Asia, using data from Handset Component Technologies (HCT), Sony captured nearly half of the smartphone image sensor market, by revenue, in 2020. Behind Sony was Samsung and OmniVision at 29% and 10%, respectively. The remaining 15% is comprised of other, unnamed sensor manufacturers. It’s a big market dominated by a small number of firms, with 85% of smartphone image sensor revenue captured by the top three firms.

46% market revenue share is a considerable amount and remains far ahead of Samsung in second place. However, Sony did lose market share to Samsung, OmniVision and other manufacturers in 2020. Sony’s dip doesn’t appear to be due to the coronavirus pandemic, but rather because Huawei, a key buyer of Sony sensors, faced sanctions and lost its own market share.

Regarding the pandemic and its impact in 2020, early last year, Sony warned that its image sensor business could be ‘enormously’ hit by the coronavirus outbreak. It doesn’t seem to have been ‘enormously’ hit yet, but the impact of the pandemic has not yet been fully realized, especially considering an ongoing critical shortage in semiconductors.

‘The pandemic did little to dent the image sensor market growth as CIS vendors observed strong demand from smartphone OEMs who aggressively adopted high-resolution sensors and higher sensor count across smartphone tiers in 2020,’ says Jeffrey Mathews, Senior Analyst at Strategy Analytics. ‘Samsung, OmniVision and SK Hynix continued to take share from Sony as the vendor lost key business owing to sanctions on Huawei. We expect Sony’s market dominance will be increasingly threatened by the rising competition in the smartphone image sensor market.’

The OnePlus 9 Pro has four cameras, including a 48MP main camera and 50MP ultra-wide camera. Unsurprisingly, the proliferation of smartphones with multiple image sensors has had a positive impact on the overall demand for smartphone image sensors.

Stephen Entwistle, Vice President of the Strategic Technologies Practice at Strategy Analytics, adds, ‘The demand momentum for smartphone CIS, driven by the expansion of multiple cameras and superior photography capabilities in smartphones, will propel the image sensor market growth. However, the semiconductor shortages could create challenges in meeting the CIS demand.’

Entwistle’s remark about the expansion of multiple cameras in smartphones is key. For example, consider the OnePlus 9 series phones announced last month. These new smartphones each utilize multiple Sony image sensors to power their multi-camera arrays. The new Vivo X60 series, on the other hand, also has multiple image sensors, although the primary camera uses a 50MP Samsung image sensor.

The new OnePlus and Vivo smartphones highlight an ongoing trend in the smartphone market, a significant emphasis on photographic capabilities. OnePlus has teamed up with Hasselblad, and Vivo has teamed up with Zeiss. Other brands, too, are building much of their marketing campaigns around the cameras in their smartphones.

Consumers continually expect advancements in the photographic capabilities of their smartphones. Consider the Vivo X60 Pro+, which is co-engineered with Zeiss, the primary marketing material discusses photography. Consumers demand more and better cameras in their smartphones.

Apple may not have joined in on the high-resolution smartphone trend yet, with its flagship iPhone 12 Pro Max still using a 12MP image sensor, but the company is all-in on using multiple image sensors on its smartphone models.

In terms of the overall smartphone image sensor market, it grew 13% year-over-year. The global smartphone image sensor market recorded total revenue of $15B in 2020. This is despite smartphone shipments decreasing nearly 9% in 2020 compared to 2019. While overall smartphone shipments may be decreasing, which could be an aberration due to the pandemic, the increased demand for most sophisticated image sensors and additional image sensors per smartphone, the image sensor market itself remains very healthy.