Citing a person familiar with the matter, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Samsung crossed the 20 million mark in the quarter ending on Sept. 30. While the number isn't official, it would best the 17.1 million iPhone shipments Apple reported during its quarterly earnings report on Tuesday.
Samsung is set to officially release its third-quarter earnings next week, when it is expected it will announce total smartphone shipments for the three-month span. If the 20 million number holds, it would place Samsung not only ahead of Apple, but also beyond Nokia, which shipped 16.8 million smartphones.
Samsung already made waves earlier this week when it and Google unveiled the new Galaxy Nexus smartphone running Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich." The device will sport a 4.65-inch Super HD AMOLED display and a 1.2GHz dual-core processor when it launches in the U.S., Europe and Asia this November.
In terms of total smartphone shipments, Apple overtook Nokia in the June quarter to become the largest vendor by units, with 20.34 million iPhones sold in a single quarter. But Apple's stay at the top may have been short-lived, based on the Samsung figures shared with the Journal.
Apple executives said on Tuesday that iPhone sales in the previous quarter were affected by a longer-than-expected wait for the company's next-generation iPhone. While Apple has typically launched new hardware at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in June, this year the company waited until October to unveil the new iPhone 4S.
As rumors of the iPhone 4S built leading up to its formal introduction, there was a noticeable effect on sales of the iPhone 4 toward the end of the September quarter, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said. Analysts on Wall Street referred to the transition as a "hiccup," and said they expect sales to rebound in the holiday quarter with the launch of the iPhone 4S.
Of course, units shipped represent only part of the story in the smartphone market. In terms of revenue, Apple has been the largest mobile phone vendor in the world since January. One study from earlier this year found that Apple's 4 percent share of the worldwide mobile market rakes in more than half of the entire industry's profit.