Samsung tops Nokia in Q1 handset race

Research firms disagree on whether Samsung has passed Apple in the smartphone market

Samsung beat Nokia to the top position in the global handset market in the first quarter of 2012, research firms Strategy Analytics and IHS iSuppli said Friday.

The research firms however disagreed on Samsung's smartphone shipments in the first quarter with iSuppli giving Apple the top position in smartphones, while Strategy Analytics called in favor of Samsung.

The Korean company shipped 93.5 million handsets in the first quarter, up from 69 million units a year earlier, for a 25% share of the market, even as global handset shipments grew a little over 3% annually to reach 368 million units in the quarter, Strategy Analytics said.

In contrast, Nokia's handset shipments were down 24% year-on-year to 82.7 million units, giving it a 22.5% share. Shipments of its low-end feature phone stalled in emerging markets while its high-end Lumia smartphones, based on Microsoft's Windows Phone operating system, were unable to make up for a decline in Nokia's legacy Symbian business, according to Strategy Analytics.

In the first quarter of last year, Nokia had a 30.4% share to Samsung's 19.3% share, indicating a significant shift in the handset market, as Nokia tries to manage a difficult transition amidst stiff competition from Samsung and Apple, and a number of vendors of low-cost devices.

Samsung's success reflects a shift in the wireless market, where cellphone market growth is being generated exclusively by the smartphone segment, and not by feature phones and other low-cost entry phones, iSuppli said. Smartphones accounted for 34% of Samsung's handset shipments in the first quarter, in contrast to 14% of Nokia's shipments, the research firm said.

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Apple's iPhone shipments almost doubled to 35 million units in the quarter, increasing its share to 9.5% from 5.2% a year earlier, according to Strategy Analytics. But Samsung's upcoming Galaxy S3 flagship model could slow iPhone's growth in some regions if it is well received by operators and consumers, it said.

Samsung shipped 92 million handsets to 83 million by Nokia, and 35 million by Apple in the first quarter, according to iSuppli. It said its tally of global shipments of handsets included only those vendors that have reported results for the first quarter so far. The research firm put Samsung's shipments of smartphones in the first quarter at 32 million, putting it in second place to Apple.

Strategy Analytics, in contrast, said Samsung shipped 44.5 million smartphones in the first quarter for a 30.6% share, while Apple shipped 35 million units for a 24.1% share. Nokia had a 8.2% share.

Samsung saw smartphones shipments grow by almost four-times from the same quarter last year, backed strong demand for its popular Galaxy models such as the Note, S2 and Y, Strategy Analytics said. Nokia's Lumia phones have taken off in the U.S., but that surge cannot make up for falling sales in its phones running the Symbian operating system, it said.

Strategy Analytics has confidence in its numbers as it tracks Samsung on a monthly basis, said Thomas K. Kang, an analyst with the firm, in an email. The numbers do not include tablets, he clarified.

Researcher iSuppli said in an email that it had used guidance from Samsung's first quarter earnings call to come up with its figure for the company's handset and smartphone shipments in the first quarter, after estimating a dip of about 13% in shipments and the smartphone mix remaining more or less the same. The research firm had estimated that Samsung shipped 106 million handsets in the fourth quarter of which 36 million were smartphones.

Reflecting the growing competition between the two companies, Apple and Samsung are in patent litigation in many countries, aimed to block each other's products in these markets. Samsung said Thursday that it has begun production of the 1.4GHz Exynos 4 Quad processor, based on the ARM Cortex A9, which will power the next Galaxy smartphone.

Samsung overtook Apple in the third quarter in smartphones, because customers waited for the fourth-quarter launch of the iPhone 4S, but lost the top position to Apple again in the fourth quarter, according to Strategy Analytics.

Global smartphone shipments grew 41% year-on-year to 145.3 million units in the first quarter, it said.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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