The clock turns, the pendulum swings and we have a new leader on top of the Smartphone Wars scoreboard. 

Two of Apple’s iPhone models were the top shipping models in the last quarter of 2012. The iPhone 5 shipped 27.4 million units, making it the top-selling phone. It was followed by the year-old iPhone 4S, which shipped 17.4 million units, according to a new report from Strategy Analytics. 

The vaunted Samsung Galaxy S 3 flagship came in third with 15.4 million units shipped. 

Everyone except Wall Street seems to know that Apple did extremely well during the holiday season. It sold a record 47.8 million iPhones and recorded $54.5 billion in revenue. Apple does well every quarter, really, but its business is extremely cyclical.

Apple does extraordinarily well late in the year, while dipping in the summer months. This has to do with the consumer-oriented nature of Apple’s products and timing of device launches.

That’s why in the third quarter of 2012 the report from Strategy Analytics carried the splashy headline, “Galaxy S 3 Tops iPhone 4S.” Apple had just released the iPhone 5 at the end of Q3 and the 4S was still Apple’s flagship for most of the quarter, retailing at $199 in the United States on two-year contract. When the iPhone 5 came out, the 4S was discounted to $99 on a contract. 

Right in time for the holidays.

The difference between the Galaxy S3 and the iPhone 4S is slim. From Q3 to Q4, Samsung’s flagship declined 2.6 million in shipments. The iPhone 4S rose 1.2 million with many of those units likely targeted toward cost-conscious consumers and emerging markets. 

Strategy Analytics looks distinctly at individual phone shipments. It does not include Samsung’s extremely long tail of “S”-related devices that the South Korean company uses to flood the world market with affordable Android devices.

When Apple started discounting old iPhones when the newest iteration was released, it defined its own long-tail strategy. Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference last week that the company would not make a cheaper iPhone for the sake of making a cheaper iPhone, but would rather focus on making older models more affordable. We see now what he was talking about. 

dan rowinski