Apple won last year's smartphone wars, according to data released today by Gartner.
Other reports have pointed to Samsung as the leading vendor in 2011, but the research firm placed Apple on top with a 19 percent market share overall, barely half a point higher than Samsung's share.
Driven by the iPhone 4S, the fourth quarter was especially strong for Apple with a 23.8 percent share amid sales of 37 million iPhones. And many of those sales came outside the U.S., helping boost the industry as a whole.
"Western Europe and North America led most of the smartphone growth for Apple during the fourth quarter of 2011," Gartner analyst Roberta Cozza said in a statement. "In Western Europe the spike in iPhone sales in the fourth quarter saved the overall smartphone market after two consecutive quarters of slow sales."
Apple's smart management of its retail channels helped it inch past Samsung, which saw some buildup in its smartphone inventory, according to Gartner. As the availability of the iPhones 4S continues to expand, Apple should see healthy demand in the first quarter. However, Gartner expects sales to decline from the December quarter, which was boosted by delayed purchases for the new iPhone.
While Samsung and Apple stood out at the top smartphone players last quarter, other well-known vendors didn't fare as well.
LG, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, and Research In Motion all struggled to boost shipments and earnings. And all faced competition not just from Samsung and Apple but from vendors such as ZTE and Huawei, which grabbed more market share during the quarter through both low-end and midrange smartphones.
Overall, smartphone sales hit 149 million last quarter, a 47 percent rise from 2010's final quarter. For the year, sales reached 472 million and accounted for 31 percent of all mobile handset sales, an increase of 58 percent from the previous year.
Looking at smartphones by operating system, Android saw a slight decline in market share last quarter from the third quarter.
That drop was the result of solid iPhone sales as well as the struggle by Android vendors to create unique and distinctive devices among the flood of phones hitting the market.
But Android remained on top by a wide margin in the fourth quarter with a 50.9 percent market share, up from 30.5 percent in the prior year's quarter. Apple's iOS kept a firm grip on second place with a 23.8 percent share, up from 15.8 percent a year ago.
Eyeing the next couple of quarters, Gartner expects the market share of iOS to drop as upgrades to the iPhone 4S start to slow down.