Apple back on top in smartphone shipment war – but only just

Apple VS SamsungApple bounced back in the October to December quarter of last year to once again become the world’s largest smartphone vendor, knocking Samsung back into second place.

According to data released Thursday by research firm Strategy Analytics, the iPhone maker took a 23.9 percent share of the smartphone market against Samsung’s 23.5 percent for the three-month period.

The top two positions are reversed from the July to September quarter when Samsung was helped by two factors in particular: strong sales of its Galaxy S II handset and the fact that many consumers were holding off buying an iPhone because they were waiting for October’s launch of the iPhone 4S.

When the iPhone 4S did come to market, it made a real splash, outselling every other iteration of Apple’s popular device. It’s the astonishing popularity of the 4S that has helped propel Apple back to the top spot for the fourth quarter.

To be fair to Samsung, there really isn’t much between the two tech giants, with Apple selling only marginally more smartphone units than its Korean rival in the three-month period—37 million to 36.5 million. Taking the number three spot is Nokia, which sold 19.6 million units, giving it a 12.6 percent share of the market.

And Samsung can also draw comfort from the fact that its shipment figures for the whole of 2011 just pipped those of Apple, with 97.4 million units shipped compared to Apple’s 93 million. In 2010, Apple sold twice as many smartphones as Samsung (47.5 million to 23.9 million), so the trend certainly looks to favor Samsung.

The challenge for Apple now is to maintain healthy sales of the 4S until the iPhone 5 is launched, though that shouldn’t be too much of a problem once it finally gets a proper release in China. It’s not known when Apple’s next-generation iPhone will be appearing, though recent rumors, and there are plenty of them of course, suggest it may come to market as early as this summer.