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Can Apple Maintain its Mobile Smartphone Lead?

Has Apple dropped the price of some of its smartphone inventory, purely in an attempt to win back market share lost to other vendors during 2011? According to the latest market study by Juniper Research, Apple has overtaken Samsung during the last quarter of 2011 -- but it's not clear if it can maintain that lead.

Almost 25 percent of the 149 million smartphones shipped worldwide in Q4 were Apple iPhones. While Apple overtook Samsung to reach the number one position, the Korean giant has increased its market share four-fold since Q1 2010 -- that's from 4.7 to 21.7 percent.

According to Juniper's assessment, we know that the increase in Samsung smartphone popularity is forcing Apple to continue offering older models to mobile network service providers -- in an attempt to keep ahead. But for how long?

While Apple sold 4 million iPhone 4Ss within three days of launch, the company's return to top spot was partly driven by continuing to offer the iPhone 3GS -- first launched in 2009 -- at rock-bottom prices.

Juniper believes this is a calculated marketing effort to shore-up Apple's defense against a bombardment of standard and premium smartphones from Samsung. However, Apple doesn't have mind-share as a value-brand; it's typically positioned as a price-premium brand.

Daniel Ashdown, Research Analyst with Juniper Research said "The scale of Samsung’s product range is saturating the market. Apple has had to counter Samsung’s products like the Galaxy Ace in order to maintain the visibility of its brand."

While Apple and Samsung have traded places for the past three quarters, results of other OEMs were more muted.

Taiwan-based HTC was the only other member of the top five to see significant year-on-year growth. Juniper estimates, prior to official data, that the company shipped 12.1 million smartphones in Q4.

Elsewhere troubled Blackberry-maker RIM’s woes will be soothed somewhat as shipments remained steady year-on-year at 14.4 million -- that's down just 0.7 percent.

2012 will be an important year for Nokia as it looks to fight back with a full-year of Windows Phone 7 launches. The Finnish OEMs smartphone shipments were down 31 percent y-o-y in the fourth quarter.

The first half of 2012 is going to get very interesting in the smartphone arena -- which is a good thing for people looking to upgrade to a new device. It can be assumed that they will cost less and will be more capable than previous models.

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