A new survey by IHS iSuppli has confirmed that Apple was the best-performing smartphone vendor in the first quarter of this year, while Nokia and BlackBerry maker Research In Motion posted double-digit decline each. The entire smartphone market contracted 1.5 percent in terms of units shipped, the first sequential decrease since the beginning of 2009. It wasn’t unexpected due to the supply woes and the preceding holiday quarter being traditionally the most lucrative period for consumer tech.

Apple shipped 18.6 million iPhones, a 14.9 percent increase over the 16.2 million units from the holiday quarter. None of the remaining top five handset vendors matched Apple’s growth. Second-ranked HTC, for example, grew shipments by a modest 6.2 percent. Canada-based RIM rose 4.2 percent and is now trailing Apple by four percentage points. The iPhone hurt Motorola and Nokia the most in the first quarter of 2011.

The research firm contributed Apple’s growth to the Verizon iPhone that expanded Apple’s addressable market in the US. At the same time, the move “placed additional pressure” on Motorola, Samsung, LG and HTC – all major Verizon Wireless customer – iSuppli’s senior analyst Tina Teng pointed out.

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Motorola posted a 16.3 decline in smartphone shipments, while Nokia’s shipments contracted by 14.5 percent. Apple is now trailing the Finnish cellphone giant by just 5.7 percentage points. Nokia shipped 24.2 million smartphones during the first quarter versus 28.3 million in the year-ago quarter. Further decline is to be expected as the Microsoft deal is unlikely to yield any significant Nokia phones for nearly one year, iSuppli noted. Last week’s IDC survey estimated a 79.7 percent year-over-year growth in the smartphone business. Nearly 100 million smartphones were shipped during the first quarter of this year, IDC noted.

According to the research firm, Apple was ranked the second-largest smartphone vendor globally in terms of units sold, based on 18.65 million iPhones that earned them a respectable 18.7 percent market share (versus an IDC-estimated 24.2 percent share for Nokia). Apple grew its smartphone business an astounding 114 percent compared to the year-ago quarter, while Nokia posted only a modest 12.6 percent growth and lost fourteen percentage points of market share in just twelve months, IDC warned.

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