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Data Indicates iPhone Sales Skyrocketed in the Fourth Quarter

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Nielsen's latest research indicates that Apple iPhone 4S sales were absolutely huge in the fourth quarter.

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We have yet another indicator that Apple's (AAPL) iPhone 4S had one heck of a holiday season.

If you recall, Apple filed a disappointing fiscal fourth-quarter earnings report on October 18, missing consensus iPhone sales estimates by a country mile.

The culprit was the fact that last year's iPhone 4S was released in October, rather than June or July, which was the standard release window for prior iPhone models. Analysts underestimated the potential impact of the late release, which pushed sales into the December quarter, and opened a window for key Google (GOOG) Android phone models like the Samsung Galaxy Nexus to take some share.

But according to the latest survey from market-research firm Neilsen, 44.5% of recent smartphone buyers in the US chose an iPhone in December -- up from just 25.1% in October. That means the iPhone came back big-time during the holidays.

There's no doubt that we've seen a litany of bullish anecdotes regarding iPhone 4S sales, including but not limited to the following:

1. AT&T (T), a key iPhone carrier, reported record smartphone sales. (See Apple iPhone Bulls, Please Keep Quiet.)

2. Qualcomm (QCOM), a big iPhone 4S chip supplier, dropped blockbuster Q4 guidance. (See Qualcomm Erases Fears of a Smartphone Slowdown.)

3. Broadcom (BRCM), another key iPhone supplier, reported strong smartphone metrics. (See Broadcom Joins AT&T and Best Buy in Piling up the Ammunition for Apple Bulls.)

4. Motorola (MMI) and HTC had lousy holiday seasons, indicating market-share losses to Samsung and Apple. (See Motorola Results Point to Apple, Samsung Dominance.)

However, market-research numbers have a much higher statistical reliability than mere anecdotes from other company's earnings and news releases, and my own real-world observations on subways, airports, and the streets of New York. Just keep in mind that Nielsen's numbers only reflect the US market, although the key smartphone trend (Apple and Android taking share) is considered an international phenomenon.

Now, if there were a negative to glean from Nielsen's data, it's the poor performance of Research In Motion (RIMM), which is incidentally getting crushed today on deflated takeover rumors. According to Nielsen, just 6% of recent smartphone buyers chose BlackBerry models, which implies lost market share, given that 14.9% of the installed smartphone user base uses BlackBerry.

Conversely, 37% of recent buyers chose iPhones vs. 30% of the existing base of smartphone users. Google Android is also taking share, with 51.7% of recent buyers vs. 46.3% of the installed base. Now if we add these together, it seems that 88.7% of smartphone buyers are going iPhone or Android, relative to 76.3% of the installed base. That 12.4% difference relative to the installed base implies that Google and Android took a huge chunk of BlackBerry users during the fourth quarter, and then some.

Twitter: @MichaelComeau

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