Apple now third largest phonemaker, pushing feature phones aside

New data shows the worldwide breakdown of mobile phone sales in 2011. Feature phones are increasingly being replaced by smart phones, with top-tier models from Apple and Samsung leading the pack.

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    The Galaxy Notes goes on display in Seoul, South Korea. Samsung is the No. 2 phonemaker in the world, with Apple suddenly breaking in as No. 3.
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There's no stopping the rise of the smart phones now.

We've known for a long time that regular cell phones, also called feature phones, are on the wane. The latest numbers from market research firm IDC confirm the trend, but their biggest surprise is how much the iPhone has risen: Apple jumped ahead of LG to become the third-biggest worldwide vendor of mobile phones this year, trailing only Nokia and Samsung.

Although cheaper feature phones still made up the majority of sales in 2011, smart phones are gaining. A lot of that growth is thanks to Apple -- the iPhone now makes up 6 percent of the total market, compared to 4 percent last year and 2 percent the year before that.

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There's still a pretty big gap separating Apple from Nokia and Samsung, though: Nokia controlled 27 percent of the market in 2011, and Samsung controlled 21.3 percent. A lot of that share comes from feature phones (remember, Apple's only model is the iPhone), although both companies have been making waves with high-end smart phones. Nokia took a hit while retiring its Symbian OS, but it recently launched the Lumia line running Windows Phone 7 software, and early reactions have been pretty positive.

Samsung, meanwhile, is rising steadily thanks to Android devices (the Galaxy S II and Galaxy Nexus handsets in particular) and Windows Phone 7 ones (including the Focus Flash and Focus S models). Although Samsung's overall market share is boosted by a healthy bulk of feature phones, it actually trails Apple in the smart phone market.

It's been a bit of a rough year for LG, the fourth-largest phone vendor. Its selection of smart phones isn't as robust as Nokia's, Apple's, or Samsung's, and feature phone sales are down from 2010. LG finished 2011 with 5.7 percent of the market, followed closely by Chinese manufacturer ZTE with 4.0 percent. ZTE is mainly known for low-end feature phones, but it, too, has been making roads lately with some smart phone models.

Overall, the mobile phone market grew at a healthy clip of 11.1 percent during 2011, but that's down from 18.9 percent in 2010. IDC says the statistics indicate that the phone market is "not immune to weaker macroeconomic conditions worldwide," but also expects brisk growth in 2012 as more consumers gravitate toward smart phones.

Readers, how do these stats square with what you've seen this year? Are you or your friends still rocking feature phones, or have you upgraded to a smart phone? Let us know in the comments.

For more tech news, follow us on Twitter @venturenaut. And don’t forget to sign up for the weekly BizTech newsletter.

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