Early Q3 performance indicators show momentum has returned to the mobile handset market, according to ABI Research.

“While results are not in yet from all mobile handset vendors, Q3 shows signs of a recovery after a flat Q2 raised concerns following a very strong start to the year,” says Jake Saunders, Vice President of Forecasting. “ABI Research has raised its market expectation to 380 million handsets shipped, for a 5.5 percent sequential increase.”

Many of the handset vendors will issue qualifying language for the short-term outlook as the uncontrolled wrecking ball of the European debt crisis, combined with the limp growth prospects from the USA, could trip Western economies into a recession.

“The release of the iPhone 4S in October prevented Apple from moving up a market share notch in Q3,” says Kevin Burden, Vice President, mobile devices.

Apple shipped 17.1 million iPhones in Q3, representing a 21 percent increase over the same quarter last year, but a 16 percent decline over the previous quarter, causing Apple to maintain its fifth position.

“Despite the industry bemoaning the non-appearance of the iPhone 5, the iPhone 4S and its low-priced older models are setting Apple up for a monster Q4 that should push it into the top four,” Burden said.

Nokia is as close as it has ever been to losing its top market share spot as it will post a further decline in 3Q11. As Huawei, ZTE, and TCL eat Nokia’s low end, Samsung has a very good chance to dethrone Nokia’s number one position in Q3.

RIM received some benefit in Q3 from its BlackBerry 7 OS release, but until it can fulfill the unification promise of its phones and PlayBook under its new BBX OS, the manufacturer will continue to lose market share. Sony-Ericsson decided to turn its back on feature phones, but it is unlikely to have a material impact on market share as its Android-based smartphones are already helping the vendor make gains. Motorola similarly has turned a corner, although positive movements are likely to remain slight in Q3.

ABI Research’s new market data, “Mobile Device Market Share Outlook,” is a preview of early expectations of quarterly mobile handset market share released prior to the quarter's final counting.