Apple retook the No. 1 spot in global smartphone shipments in the fourth quarter of 2011, according to a new report from research firm IHS.
In doing so, Apple managed to knock Samsung out of the top-ranked position it held in the third quarter. From store shelves to courtrooms, the two companies are locked in a vicious battle for mobile-device supremacy.
"Apple's introduction of the [iPhone] 4S in the fourth quarter unleashed tremendous pent-up demand for the iPhone as consumers awaited the arrival of the latest model," Wayne Lam, an IHS analyst, wrote in a statement accompanying that research note. "This caused the company's smartphone shipments to surge, allowing it to retake market leadership by a slight margin."
That sets up Apple and Samsung for a grand battle in 2012, one where victory-or at least the top spot in global smartphone shipments-will hinge on the success or failure of two very different strategies. Samsung will almost certainly opt to continue its approach from 2011, which Lam defines as "offering a complete line of smartphone products, spanning a variety of price points, features and operating systems." Chances are likewise excellent that Apple will maintain its own longtime stratagem: Market a single current-generation "hero device," with price cuts to its limited line of older smartphones.
Right now, Apple's hero device is the iPhone 4S. It's widely expected, however, that the company will release an iPhone 5 in either the summer or fall timeframe. According to current rumors, the next iPhone will deviate radically from its predecessors, with a larger screen and perhaps a more powerful processor.
Meanwhile, Samsung is reportedly prepping its own hero device for 2012, the Galaxy S III. But that's just one of the multiple smartphones offered by the manufacturer. Google is prepping its next major upgrade to Android, Ice Cream Sandwich, which could bring the platform more on parity with Apple's iOS. And the Android Marketplace continues to fill with third-party apps, the better to battle toe-to-toe with Apple's App Store.
In other words, Apple's spectacular fourth quarter may have given it momentum heading into 2012-but Samsung (and other Android device makers) won't let Cupertino solidify those gains without a fight. With regard to the broader mobile-device arena, Apple's iPad will also compete with Samsung's Galaxy Tab franchise (and other Android tablets) for touch-screen dominance.