Californian gadget shop Apple steamed into second place in the smartphone market during the third quarter, knocking RIM off its perch, and creeping up on Nokia.

During the three month period to the end of September, global shipments of smart phones hit a new peak of just under 40 million units, representing around 13 per cent of the total mobile phone market, up from 11 per cent in the previous quarter.

Industry analyst Canalys, which released the figures on Friday, said that the introduction of the iPhone 3G in July and Apple’s expansion into more countries helped propel the vendor to second place globally, taking it above RIM for the first time with over 17 per cent of the market.

The BlackBerry vendor by comparison took over 15 per cent market share, a significant leap in itself, up from 10.6 per cent during the same period last year.

The success of Apple and RIM, as well as fifth-placed HTC with its Windows Mobile devices, has eaten into Nokia’s share of the smart phone space – a market it has led consistently for several years. As Canalys notes, Nokia’s broad portfolio of models, and the wider audience it attracts, tends to leave it more exposed to the trends affecting the overall handset market.

Year on year, the Finnish firm’s smartphone shipments fell for the first time, from 68 per cent last year to 46.6 per cent in the third quarter, 2008.

“It was expected that Apple would figure among the smart phone leaders this quarter, with that huge initial new product shipment, it was just a question of how high up it would be – and this is impressive,” said Pete Cunningham, senior analyst with Canalys. But despite RIM being nudged into third place, its growth of over 80 per cent shouldn’t be overlooked either, he said. “This is also a tremendous performance, especially considering the delays it experienced in rolling out the Blackberry Bold. Some customers will also have been waiting for the Storm to arrive. With these new products and the clamshell Pearl 8220 available in Q4, it is quite feasible that RIM will return to the number two position,” the analyst said.

Despite being overtaken by Apple globally in the third quarter, Microsoft increased its share of the smart phone market year on year to 13.6 per cent, helped by the volumes being achieved by vendors like HTC and Samsung.

Motorola meanwhile, which is currently holding onto fourth place in the smartphone space thanks largely to its Linux-based models, recently announced it would move away from using the Symbian OS and focus more on Android. With T-Mobile’s G1 now shipping in the US and the UK, Android is expected to make an appearance in fourth quarter smartphone numbers, although more vendors and a wider range of device designs will be needed to achieve significant global shipment levels.

Interestingly, this now means that each of the top five hardware vendors largely allied to a different OS. And having sufficient control of development of the operating system, which Apple and RIM clearly have already, will be crucial. However, Nokia’s acquisition of Symbian should help it in this regard, regardless of what other Symbian Foundation members choose to do.

So with Android about to be thrown into the mix, Canalys expects that 2009 will see Symbian remain on top, but that it will be fairly closely fought between the other major smart phone operating systems, presenting operators and application developers with some challenges around where they deploy their resources.