Are Apple and Samsung the Only Ones Left in the Fight?

There are two clear winners as tech companies try to make smartphones the device of choice for users. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) may have cornered the U.S. market, but its global growth in the first quarter was behind Samsung, which also overtook the former in worldwide smartphone market share.

Samsung moved above Apple in the list of the world’s top smartphone sellers, holding a 29.1 percent share of the market after growing 267 percent year-over-year. Apple now has 24.2 percent of the market, up from 18.3 percent in the first quarter of 2011. Samsung also replaced Nokia (NYSE:NOK) on top of the global mobile phone market, the first time the Finnish company has been dislodged since 2004, to hold 23.5 percent of the share, according to a report by the research firm IDC. The struggling Nokia is down to a 20.8 percent share, while Apple is now up to third at 8.8 percent of the market.

The overall smartphone market grew 42.5 percent year over year, with 144.9 million units being shipped around the world.

Nokia lost 50.8 percent of its share from the first quarter of last year to go down to an 8.2 percent share of the smartphone market, while Research in Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) and HTC lost 29.7 percent and 23.3 percent of their respective market share.

Apple’s 35.1 million phone shipments in the first three months of the year had exceeded expectations when they were first announced by the company. Samsung, which does not publicly announce its number, is being estimated to have shipped 42.2 million units.

IDC reaffirmed that the two companies were really only battling each other. “The race between Apple and Samsung remained tight during the quarter, even as both companies posted growth in key areas,” analyst Ramon Llamas wrote.

“Apple launched its popular iPhone 4S in additional key markets, most notably in China, and Samsung experienced continued success from its Galaxy Note smartphone/tablet and other Galaxy smartphones. With other companies in the midst of major strategic transitions, the contest between Apple and Samsung will bear close observation as hotly-anticipated new models are launched.”

With the two companies the only ones in the top five to register growth, it’s clear who the race is between.