Today in Apple history: Apple unseats Nokia as top smartphone vendor

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Nokia
Remember when Nokia was on top of the world?
Photo: Killian Bell/Cult of Mac

July 21: Today in Apple history: Apple unseats Nokia as top smartphone vendor July 21, 2011: Apple officially passes Nokia to become the world’s top smartphone vendor.

It’s a major milestone for Apple, which launched the iPhone just four years earlier. For Nokia, which dominated the cellphone market during the 1990s and early 2000s, it marks the end of an era.

Rise of Apple, fall of Nokia

A sharp decline by Nokia puts Apple on top.
A sharp decline by Nokia puts Apple on top.
Image: Asymco

The triumph of the iPhone over Nokia involved the seemingly unstoppable rise of Apple, as well as a sharp drop in shipments by Nokia. For the financial quarter ending in July 2011, Apple sold 20.3 million iPhones, compared to Nokia’s 16.7 million.

Nokia remained the world’s largest phonemaker by volume (taking into account non-smartphones), but it was clear a tipping point had been reached. By this time, Apple was selling its enormously successful iPhone 4 — and with more countries adopting smartphones, the company’s future was looking bright.

However, Apple also faced challenges from Android devices. Upstart smartphone-maker Samsung also overtook Nokia as a result of the Finnish company’s fall from grace. Still, Samsung sold only half the number of phones Apple did.

Nokia: From hot phone to ‘burning platform’

Nokia, for its part, created the smartphone market in 1996 with its Communicator phone series, which introduced features like color displays, web browsing and the Symbian operating system. Nonetheless, its 2011-era phones ultimately proved uninspiring. In February 2011, Nokia’s new CEO Stephen Elop warned staff, “We are standing on a burning platform.”

The company cut 4,000 jobs worldwide, with another 4,000 to follow in 2012. In addition, Nokia doubled down on its partnership with Microsoft with the goal of replacing its Symbian operating system with the software for Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7. Microsoft ultimately purchased Nokia’s mobile division in 2013.

Nokia profits
Here’s how profits broke down that quarter.
Image: Asymco

Today, Nokia still holds records for the top-selling phone models of all time. The Nokia 1100, which went on sale in 2003, remains the best-selling mobile phone in history, with more than 250 million sold. These days, the company is nothing but a bit player on the smartphone scene. You can still buy Nokia smartphones. However, they’re made by HMD Global, which licenses the Nokia name.

The iPhone, on the other hand, is … well, the iPhone.

Did you own a Nokia mobile phone back in the day? When did you realize the iPhone would dominate the world? Leave your comments below.