Apple snares top smartphone sales spot

iPhone beats Samsung's multiple models in Q4 2011, say research firms

Apple has claimed titles as the world's and the US' top seller of smartphones in the last quarter, according to analysts.

The company's record sales - the majority of them the new iPhone 4S - in the three months ending December 31, 2011 translated into the top spot among smartphone manufacturers globally and in the United States, according to IDC and the NPD Group.

NPD attributed the jump in Apple's US fortunes to the release of the iPhone 4S and the availability of its device on US carrier Sprint for the first time.

"Historically, we see an Apple sales jump in the first quarter of a new model's availability," said Ross Rubin, an analyst with NPD. "But Sprint benefitted significantly from this launch because of the pent-up demand [among its customers], and also attracted a large share of the users switching carriers because of its unlimited data plan."

But while Apple held the first three places in the top-five list of bestselling phones with the iPhone 4S, iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS in that order, more Android smartphones were sold during the quarter than the combined number of iPhones.

Among all US smartphone buyers during that period, 48 per cent chose an Android-powered device as 43 per cent picked an iPhone. First-time buyers skewed even more toward Android, 57 per cent to 38 per cent, said NPD.

IDC's global estimates put Apple in first place with 37 million iPhones sold last quarter, which represented 23.5 per cent of the world's smartphone market. Samsung, meanwhile, shipped 36 million smartphones for a 22.8 per cent share.

Nokia, Research in Motion (RIM) and HTC rounded out the top five for the fourth quarter of 2011.

Apple's iPhone sales were up 128 per cent year-over-year and Samsung's shipments increased by 275 per cent, said IDC.

IDC cited the iPhone 4S' launch delay - previously, Apple had debuted a new iPhone in June or July, not October, as it did for the newest model - and the addition of several new mobile carriers for driving sales.

The 37 million iPhones sold in the quarter was a single-quarter record for Apple , and a rebuttal of critics who had initially panned the device for not offering a larger screen or support for the faster LTE networks operated by AT&T and Verizon in the U.S.

For all of 2011, however, Apple held second place with 93 million devices sold, slightly behind Samsung's 94 million smartphones shipped, according to IDC.

Nokia, which has partnered with Microsoft to push the Windows Phone operating system on its smartphones, was third with 77.3 million devices shipped in 2011, a 23 per cent decline from the year before.

Rubin said that it was unlikely Apple would retain is US crown in the coming months. "But they should be able to hold onto more of the gains than they have previously," Rubin said, pinning that belief on the additional iPhones he expects Sprint to sell this quarter and next.

Sprint will release its fourth-quarter earnings numbers this week.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com .

See more articles by Gregg Keizer .

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