Updated: Samsung Rules Smartphone Shipments; Nokia Still Tops Overall In Q3

Samsung’s competitive threat to Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and Nokia (NYSE: NOK) in the smartphone space — being played out not only among consumers but in the courtrooms, too — looks like it has taken on a new reality. According to new figures from Strategy Analytics, the Korean handset maker in Q3 became the world’s biggest smartphone vendor, a title held by Apple the quarter before, and Nokia a year ago. Overall, Nokia remains the biggest mobile phone vendor, despite continuing declines in sales.

The news comes in the same week that Nokia unveiled its first handsets using the Windows Phone OS from Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) — the first devices to be released as part of Nokia’s big push to turn around its decline in sales worldwide, and particularly in the fast-growing and high-value area of smartphones.

In the wider mobile phone market, the analysts note that Nokia has continued to retain its position as the biggest handset maker. Strategy Analytics estimates that it shipped 106.6 million in Q3 2011, down from 110.4 million in the same quarter in 2010. That represents a loss of five percent in its market share, which now stands at 27.3 percent. Samsung is inching up closer with 22.6 percent market share, on shipments of 88 million units, comared to 71.4 million a year ago.

Apple also slipped down again in the overall rankings to fifth place behind ZTE. Respectively, the two had 4.4 percent and 4.7 percent of the market in terms of mobile shipments, following closely after LG (SEO: 066570), which had 5.4 percent of all shipments.

Smartphone drill down. While Apple has been accusing Samsung of copying its designs in courtrooms from California to Korea, Samsung’s market approach to smartphones has actually been very different from that of Apple and Nokia — at least up to now.

Apple has kept itself lean in its portfolio of devices — today there are essentially only three different models being sold of the iPhone, all loaded with Apple’s proprietary OS, but with varying degrees of storage and processing power. In contrast, Samsung has taken a volume approach, releasing numerous smartphones built on the Android and Windows Phone third-party platforms (and even more if you count some of Samsung’s high-end proprietary bada devices as “smart” phones). Before this week, Nokia had taken an approach somewhere in the middle: a huge volume of models (like Samsung) but with its own OS (Symbian).

Strategy Analytics figures show that for now Samsung’s smartphone approach has been working, at least in terms of number of devices shipped.

(These numbers should always be taken with a grain of salt. “Shipped” does not mean actual sales, but it can be a useful barometer of demand in sales channels. And as one reader has reminded me, Strategy Analytics’ shipped numbers are their own estimates based on a number of sources, and so even those might differ from analyst to analyst, and compared to what the company itself might report.)

In Q3 2011 Samsung shipped 28 million smartphones, more than three times the number of smartphones shipped in Q3 2010, when it shipped eight million. This quarter’s shipments work out to a 23.8 percent market share for Samsung.

Strategy Analytics notes that the big growth for Samsung was fueled by its slick Android devices, not those using Windows Phone, which could either spell an opportunity or bad news about Windows Phone demand for Nokia.

While Samsung appeared to leapfrog in its growth, Apple had a sluggish quarter: it shipped 17.1 million iPhones in Q3, compared to 20.3 million iPhones just the quarter before, when it had topped the charts. That 17-million figure is only sightly higher than the 14.1 million units it shipped the same quarter a year ago.

This works out to a 14.6 percent market share for Apple in Q3 2011, putting it just ahead of Nokia’s.

Strategy Analytics put Apple’s lower performance down to strong competition from Samsung and the overall economy, but also the idea of people holding off on buying iPhones in anticipation of a new model getting released this autumn.

That didn’t quite play out as people had expected — we are still waiting for that iPhone “5”, although Apple has been reporting early-days record sales for its new iPhone 4S. In any case, the company has continued with its very streamlined product approach, and it’s fair to wonder whether that will wash with consumers longer-term in the face of so many new devices from Nokia, Samsung and the others.

Nokia’s changes, meanwhile, are once again going in the wrong direction: it shipped 16.8 million devices in Q3 2011, nearly half as many as it did in the quarter a year ago, although actually the company has managed to remain incredibly steady compared to Q2 2011, when it shipped 16.7 million devices.

Nokia’s market share now stands at 14.4 percent, a close third behind Apple. That, at least, demonstrates that it is working hard to keep from slipping further behind as it starts to roll out its new line of smartphones.

For all the activity and growing ubiquity, though, there are some signs that we could be seeing a slowdown for all vendors. At the least it seems to indicate a need for them to reassess how best to tackle the next tier of adopters.

Strategy Analytics notes that smartphone shipments grew 44 percent annually in Q3 2011, and that overall a record 117 million units were shipped. But that growth is actually half as big as the growth recorded in Q3 2010, which was 86.5 percent. The growth in the wider mobile market was significantly lower, and also pointing to a slowdown: 14.2 percent growth year-on-year in Q3 2011, compared to 15.2 percent growth in Q2 2010.