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Worldwide sales of mobile phones to end users reached 419.1 million units in the first quarter of 2012, a 2 percent decline from the first quarter of 2011. According to researcher Gartner this is the first time since the second quarter of 2009 that the market has experienced a decline.

“Global sales of mobile devices declined more than expected due to a slowdown in demand from the Asia/Pacific region,” said Anshul Gupta, principal research analyst at Gartner. “The first quarter, traditionally the strongest quarter for Asia – which is driven by Chinese New Year – saw a lack of new product launches from leading manufacturers, and users delayed upgrades in the hope of better smartphone deals arriving later in the year.”

Samsung became the world’s top mobile handset vendor during the quarter, kicking Nokia from the No. 1 perch it held since 1998.

Samsung took back the world’s No. 1 smartphone position from Apple, selling 38 million smartphones worldwide. Samsung’s mobile phone sales reached 86.6 million units, a 25.9 percent increase from last year. In addition, Samsung’s Android-based smartphone sales in the first quarter of 2012 represented more than 40 percent of Android-based smartphone sales worldwide; no other vendors achieved more than a 10 percent share of the market.

Sales of smartphones continued to drive mobile device market growth, reaching 144.4 million units in the first quarter of 2012, up 44.7 percent year-over-year. This quarter also saw the top two smartphone vendors, Apple and Samsung, raising their combined share to 49.3 percent, up from 29.3 percent in the first quarter of 2011, and widening their lead over Nokia – which saw its smartphone market share drop to 9.2 percent.

Nokia’s mobile handset sales reached 83.2 million units, a 22.7 percent decrease from the first quarter of 2011.

“Smartphone sales are becoming of paramount importance at a worldwide level. For example, smartphone volumes contributed to approximately 43.9 per cent of overall sales for Samsung as opposed to 16 per cent for Nokia,” Gupta said.

Driven by the continued success of the iPhone 4S, Apple’s sales grew 96.2 percent in the first quarter of 2012 as the new model expanded into new markets and carriers. With more than 5 million units, China became the second-largest market for Apple after the US.

Meanwhile RIM sold 9.9 million mobile handsets in the first quarter of 2012, with its global share declining to 2.4 percent as competition increased in its international market strongholds.

“RIM desperately needs to deliver winning BB10 products to retain users and stay competitive. This will be very challenging, because BB10 lacks strong developer support, and a new BB10 device will only be available in the fourth quarter of 2012,” said Gupta.

In the smartphone OS market, Android accounted for more than half of all smartphone sales (56.1 percent) in the first quarter of 2012.

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