The Apple Rival You May Have Missed

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Something interesting happened recently that flew under the radar of many Wall Street observers.

Analysts frequently assume it's a foregone conclusion that Apple is the king of the smartphone race while they detail Research In Motion's ( RIMM) and Nokia's ( NOK) struggles to catch up.

But recent evidence suggests that the real leader of the race is South Korean electronics giant Samsung.

Cause for Concern?

For the first time ever, Samsung is able to claim the throne as the world's No. 1 handset vendor by having sold 94 million devices -- including smartphones and "dumbphones" -- worldwide, meaning that it has a significant share of the smartphone market.

The company's leadership position in the fast-growing 4G LTE segment has boosted increased demand for its family of phones, which includes the Galaxy as well as superphones.

Apple's fall to second place is only part of the surprise. Investors should also note that for the first time in 15 years, Nokia ( NOK) Nokia is out of the No. 1 spot in overall handset sales, after it sold only about 83 million devices.

In the case of Samsung, what's interesting is that it's name is often an afterthought on Wall Street. When discussing Samsung's phones, people typically refer to them first with the word "Android," the name of the Google ( GOOG) operating system on which Samsung's phones run.

The disrespect of Samsung has had a lot to do with the pro-Apple bias among analysts and, to a lesser extent, some slight favoritism toward Google.

Of course, none of this means that Apple is about to rot.

But it does make one wonder how Apple will react, and it raises questions about how Samsung got to No. 1.

With Apple and Samsung having accounted for more than 70% of the global smartphone market, the "new foregone conclusion" should be that it is now a two-brand race with Samsung as the leader.

What has been most impressive about Samsung is how it has addressed consumers' budgetary concerns and focused its attention on offering a wide selection of phones including those with very reasonable prices.

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