Panasonic Corp will launch a smartphone in Europe next year, the latest Japanese maker to tiptoe late into a fiercely competitive market dominated by Samsung Electronics and Apple.

The move comes six years after Panasonic abandoned overseas sales of its feature phones, and weeks after its president, Fumio Ohtsubo, said he was slashing television production in a bid to speed up the ailing firm's planned shift from consumer electronics to environmental and energy technology.

Panasonic will launch a new Android model in Europe in March, later expanding to the United States and Asia, with a view to selling 15 million units in the year to March 2016, 9 million of those abroad, the company said on Friday.

We are well aware of our powerful competitors, said Toshinori Hoshi, head of the company's mobile communications unit. However, market shares are changing dramatically and if we launch into this fast-changing market, we believe we have a chance of a hit.

The company is targeting only a tiny percentage of a market that research firm IDC expects to grow 55 percent to 472 million units this year and hit 982 million units in 2015.

Despite such robust market growth, even heavyweights such as Taiwan's HTC Corp, the world's No.4 smartphone maker, are struggling to compete, while South Korea's LG Electronics Inc last month announced a $945 million rights issue to fund a revival of its own loss-making smartphone business.

A force to be reckoned with in mobile phones when the domestic market was booming, Panasonic admits it failed to spot the market potential for smartphones at first. It did not launch its first smartphone models in the domestic market until this year.

It's not a surprise that they're going overseas, but their presence is weaker than it was a few years ago in mobile phones and the whole company is not as strong as it once was, said analyst Keita Wakabayashi of Mito Securities in Tokyo.

So I think it will be difficult.

Rival Sony Corp is also stepping up its efforts to build share in smartphones, buying out Ericsson's half of their phone joint venture for 1.05 billion euros, and is seen as having a better chance of success.

They (Sony) can just about claim they are a global player, although they're the smallest, which is something no other Japanese phone manufacturer can say, Wakabayashi said.

Panasonic's new phone, featuring a 4.3-inch OLED screen, has yet to be named, the company said. It will be aimed at businesspeople aged in their 30s and 40s, it said.

Panasonic shares closed down 2.8 percent at 694 yen on Friday. The stock is down 40 percent this year and late last month touched its lowest since at least 1984.

(Reporting by Isabel Reynolds, Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Ian Geoghegan)