Worldwide sales of mobile phones recorded a fourth consecutive quarter of double-digit growth in Q3, increasing 14.6%, according to IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker. Vendors shipped 340.5 million mobile phones in Q3 as compared to the year ago period’s 297.1 million units.

Apple broke into the Top 5, moving into fourth position in Q3, the second smartphone-only vendor to do so, IDC noted. Apple and RIM produced the highest growth rates among the Top 5 for the quarter.

“The entrance of Apple to the top 5 vendor ranking underscores the increased importance of smartphones to the overall market,” Kevin Restivo, IDC senior research analyst, was quoted as saying. “Moreover, the mobile phone makers that are delivering popular smartphone models are among the fastest growing firms. Vendors that aren’t developing a strong portfolio of smartphones will be challenged to maintain and grow market share in the future.”

Competitive pressure in general and on industry leader Nokia in particular continues to intensify as Apple, RIM and vendors of Android smartphones try to outdo one another technologically and capture greater market share. “Nokia still leads all vendors by a significant margin for converged mobile devices and mobile phones as a whole,” according to Ramon Llamas, senior research analyst with IDC’s Mobile Devices Technology and Trends team. “However, Nokia’s grip on the traditional mobile phone market has been somewhat loosened, as multiple Chinese vendors have gained ground, especially within emerging markets. To bolster its overall competitiveness, Nokia has been focused on improving its smartphone offerings.”

IDC expects smartphone growth will drive overall mobile phone market growth worldwide through 2014. “The smartphone is becoming the focal point of the personal communications experience,” Restivo added. “As a result, new market growth will be increasingly generated by smartphones. This year, we are expecting the smartphone sub-market to grow 55% year over year.”

While continuing to grow smartly worldwide, smartphone volumes are make up only 20% of total shipments for emerging market regions, which is “modest compared to more economically developed regions,” according to IDC. In the U.S., new products introductions and promotional offerings, including Apple’s iPhone 4, RIM’s BlackBerry Torch 9800, the HTC EVO 4G, and Motorola’s new DROID X and DROID 2, and Samsung’s Galaxy S line spurred sales.

Nokia, Samsung, and LG Electronics ranked one, two and three worldwide in terms of mobile phone sales growth in Q3 with market shares of 32.4%, 21% and 8.3%, respectively. Apple and RIM rounded out the Top 5 with market shares of 4.1% and 3.6%. Samsung registered a whopping +18.6% year-over-year change in unit shipments in Q3, from 60.2 million in the year-ago quarter to 71.4 in Q3 this year.

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