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Friday, April 30, 2010, 01:50 pm PT (04:50 pm ET)

Smartphone sales jump 50%, Apple 3rd largest vendor globally

Global sales of smartphones surged by 50%, growing from 35.9 million units in the year ago quarter to 54 million units in the first quarter of 2010, the strongest growth rate in several years.

A report by MarketWatch cited figures released by Strategy Analytics, which said smartphones now make up 18% of all mobile phone sales.

Strong sales of smartphones are "driven by healthy operator subsidies, competition between vendors, and a rising number of cheaper models," the report noted, citing Android and Symbian specifically as operating system platforms fueling growth in low cost handsets.

Smartphone makers are not all competing in the same markets however. Strategy Analytics said that "some smartphone vendors, such as Nokia, will chase growing mid-tier volumes in emerging markets such as China and India," while "brands, such as Motorola will focus on mature markets like the US."

Motorola has returned to profitability after giving up high volumes of mobile phone sales to focus on higher-end smartphones like the Android-based Droid/Milestone, which is often described as the closest rival to Apple's iPhone.

Meanwhile, Nokia is struggling to retain its leadership position by focusing on emerging markets. The company sold a record 21.5 million smartphones in the first quarter, but it largely sold cheaper models "in regions including China and South America, while North America remained a 'problem child' for the company," the report stated.

Behind Nokia, RIM sold 10.6 million BlackBerries, keeping Apple in third place globally with its record 8.8 million iPhone sales for the quarter. Apple's share of smartphone sales for the quarter, at 16.4%, is up from the 14.4% share it earned in general during 2009 and up from 10.6% in the year ago quarter.

Apple's growth in the first quarter made it the number one mobile vendor among all US phone makers. Globally, Apple reached a record high of 3% global market share among all mobile phone makers.

RIM's second-place share, at 19.7%, remained relatively static, falling slightly from its 20.3% of the smartphone market in the year ago quarter. Nokia's smartphone sales are up from 38.2% in the year ago quarter to 40% this year. Nokia's definition of smartphones includes a variety of simple, low cost phones that mostly run Symbian.

Q1 2010 Global Smartphone Market Share