The US-based maker of iPhone and iPad managed to close the gap with Korean electronics major Samsung in the October- December quarter on the back of its larger iPhone 6 and reduced the volume gap to just 600,000 units.
"Having spent 11 quarters prior to Q4 2014 as the number two smartphone vendor in terms of shipments, Apple managed to close the gap to a near tie with Samsung in the fourth quarter," IDC said.
Apple's shipment volumes had trailed Samsung's by over 33 million units during the same quarter in 2013, it added.
Samsung lead the global smartphone market, shipping 75.1 million handsets in the fourth quarter of 2014 with 20.1 percent market share, closely followed by Apple at 74.5 million smartphones and 19.85 market share, IDC said.
"An elevated consumer appetite for big-screen devices, as well as Apple's push in China and other countries, saw iPhone sales up 44 percent in the US and up 97 percent in the BRIC countries," the IT research firm said.
Continued success from Apple, coupled with the ongoing challenges facing Samsung, could enable Apple to overtake Samsung this year, it said.
"Samsung's challenges have not only come from Apple, but also from the increasing number of low-cost Android OEMs that are putting out products at much lower margins," it added.
In order for Samsung to retain its share at the top, it will either have to accept lower margins from here forward or revamp its high-end strategy to compete with Apple, IDC said.
In terms of total smartphone shipments globally, vendors shipped a total of 375.2 million units during the fourth quarter of 2014, resulting in 28.2 percent growth compared to the 292.7 million units shipped in Q4 2013 and 11.9 percent sequential growth above the 335.3 million units shipped in July-September 2014, IDC said.
For the full year, the worldwide smartphone market saw a total of 1.3 billion units shipped, up 27.6 percent from little over a billion in 2013.