NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- 2014 was a good year for worldwide smartphone sales, but the last three months of the year were particularly great for Apple (APPL) , as the release of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus helped Apple pull ahead of Samsung (SSNLF) to become the global smartphone sales leader.
In the calendar fourth quarter, Apple reported its best iPhone results ever, selling 74.8 million units. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus models, its first large-screen phones, fueled huge demand in both the China (56% growth) and in the U.S., where it saw 88% growth from the year-ago quarter. Apple's new phones and strong ecosystem drove replacements within the iOS base, and the company ended the year with 20.4% of the smartphone market.
During the same period, Samsung saw its market share drop to 19.9%, down from 29.5% in the fourth quarter of 2013. Samsung did keep its No 1. sales ranking for 2014 overall, though those numbers fell as well - from 30.9% to 24.7% worldwide.
Roberta Cozza, research director at Gartner, noted there might be a path for Samsung to stage a comeback, but it would take a lot of effort. "With Apple dominating the premium phone market and the Chinese vendors increasingly offering quality hardware at lower prices, it is through a solid ecosystem of apps, content and services unique to Samsung devices that Samsung can secure more loyalty and longer-term differentiation at the high end of the market," Cozza said.
"Samsung continues to struggle to control its falling smartphone share, which was at its highest in the third quarter of 2013," said Gartner's principal research analyst, Anshul Gupta. "This downward trend shows that Samsung's share of profitable premium smartphone users has come under significant pressure."
Samsung is fighting back though. It recently unveiled the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge, two models it hopes will win back consumers lost to Apple.
Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Brian White believes that while Samsung is staying in the game, it's still likely Apple will see a meaningful boost to iPhone sales. "In our view, these new innovations keep Samsung competitive in the smartphone game; however, we continue to believe the larger iPhones introduced by Apple last September with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus provide the company will a meaningful upgrade cycle over the next two to three years," White wrote in a note.
According to the
worldwide smartphone sales had a record fourth quarter with an increase of 29.9% from the same quarter a year earlier to reach 367.5 million units. Worldwide smartphone sales totaled 1.2 billion units for the entire year.
Behind Apple and Samsung was Lenovo (LNVGY) , which moved into third place. Lenovo closed its Motorola acquisition in October, which helped boost Lenovo's overall market share to 6.6% in the fourth quarter of 2014, up from 5.8% in the fourth quarter of 2013. Handsets with the Lenovo brand name have yet to be offered for sale in the United States.
Overall, Gartner researchers found that Chinese vendors, led by Huawei and Xiaomi, are continuing to improve sales in China and other overseas markets, increasing their shares in the mid- to lower-end smartphone categories.
Of the smartphones sold in 2014, 80.7% ran versions of Android, up slightly from the 78.5% seen in 2013. As a percentage of units sold, iOS phones actually dropped very slightly from 15.5% to 15.4%, while Microsoft's (MSFT) - Get Report Windows Phones also saw its numbers fall to 2.8% of the market, down from 3.25%. BlackBerry's (BBRY) global sales continued to plunge, ending the year with 0.6% of the market, down from 1.9% in 2013.
--Written by Gary Krakow with additional reporting by Chris Ciaccia
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.