For a while now we've suspected that dumb handsets -- or, "feature phones" as they're sometimes known -- were on their way out. Now we might have proof. Strategy Analytics says there are now more than 1 billion smartphone users worldwide, up 46% from the third quarter of last year.

"We estimate 1 in 7 of the world's population owned a smartphone in the third quarter of 2012," Neil Mawston, Executive Director of Boston-based Strategy Analytics, said in a press release.  .

While acknowledging that Nokia (NYSE: NOK) was first to ship a smartphone -- the Communicator, in 1996 -- Strategy Analytics credited Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPhone line for catalyzing industry growth, which remains strong. Total usage increased to 1.038 billion handsets in the third quarter, up 46% from 708 million handsets in last year's Q3.

Further growth is likely. Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is expected to announce a new version of its popular Galaxy Nexus smartphone later this month while Apple sold 5 million units of its new iPhone 5 during the handset's first weekend on sale. Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) has also promised new handsets based on the mobile version of its new Windows 8 operating system.

"The first billion smartphones in use worldwide took 16 years to reach, but we forecast the next billion to be achieved in less than three years, by 2015," Mawston said.

Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission. He owned shares of Apple and Google at the time of publication. Check out Tim's web home, portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Google+ or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.

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