Smartphone shipments surged 50 percent in January through March versus a year ago, notching up the strongest growth in the last three years with Apple Inc and Nokia Oyj taking market share, a survey showed.

Strategy Analytics (SA) said on Friday some 54 million smartphones -- handsets with computer-like functionality -- were shipped in the quarter, comprising 18 percent of the total handset market.

This was the strongest period of growth for almost three years and the high-value smartphone market is leading the handset industry out of recession, SA said in a statement.

Sales are being driven by healthy operator subsidies, vigorous competition between vendors and a growing tide of lower-cost models using operating software like Symbian and Android, it said.

SA said iPhone maker Apple's market share leapt to 16.4 percent from 10.6 percent a year ago, while market leader Nokia raised its share to 40 percent from 38.2 percent. Blackberry maker RIM slipped to 19.7 percent from 20.3 percent.

Nokia's growth, however, has come at the expense of margins, with the firm saying last week that the average selling price of its smartphones skidded 17 percent from the previous quarter to just 155 euros. That compares to more than $600 for the iPhone.

(Reporting by Brett Young; Editing by David Holmes)