CUPERTINO, Calif. ( TheStreet) -- Apple ( AAPL) is grabbing market share from its smartphone rivals, according to research firm Strategy Analytics, which says that smartphone sales leapt 30% during the fourth quarter of 2009.

Apple, which recently launched its iPad tablet computer in a blaze of publicity, grew its market share from 10.8%, to 16.4%, compared to the fourth quarter of 2008. The consumer technology giant ranks third in the smartphone market behind Research In Motion ( RIMM) and Nokia ( NOK), which clinched 20.2% and 39.2% of the market, respectively.

With the recession slowly disappearing in the rearview mirror, some 53 million smartphones were sold globally during the quarter, up from 41 million in the same period in 2008.

"This was the strongest period of growth since Q3 2008 and smartphones are leading the handset industry out of the recession," wrote Tom Kang, senior analyst at Strategy Analytics, in a statement. "Sales are being driven by stronger consumer demand and a stream of attractive new 3G models tempting buyers into retail stores."

True to form, Apple blew past analysts' estimates in its recent quarterly results, selling 8.7 million iPhones, up from 4.4 million in the fourth quarter of 2008.

Last year, in a nod to the recession, Apple slashed the price of its basic iPhone to $99, and the Cupertino, Calif. firm is clearly experiencing strong demand for its iPhone 3GS, which was launched last summer.

It has been reported that Apple's exclusive iPhone deal with AT&T ( T) is will end this year, although the telecom giant has refused to discuss the status of the relationship. With Verizon ( VZ) rumored to be waiting in the wings, iPhone sales could receive a further boost.

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