MONTREAL - The recession has slammed the cellphone market globally but smartphones that surf the Internet, stream video and run software applications such as games still showed sales growth in the latest quarter.

Global market intelligence firm IDC said Thursday that worldwide mobile phone shipments dropped by almost 16 per cent in the first quarter ended March 31, the sector's worst performance ever. But smartphones continued to grow year-over-year, with an increase in shipments of about four per cent.

"It's impressive growth considering that we are in a recession," said analyst Kevin Restivo of IDC Canada.

"It just further underscores the transition that consumers and businesses are making to smartphones," he said from Toronto.

IDC said vendors shipped a total of 244.8 million mobile phones in the first quarter of 2009, down 15.8 per cent from the year-ago worldwide total.

"There hasn't been a more dramatic shipment drop when comparing one quarter to a prior-year quarter," Restivo said.

In North America, IDC says shipments of mobile phones started the year slightly higher than a year ago even as the recession deepened in the United States and impacted Canada.

Wireless carrier Rogers Communications (TSX:RCI.B) has said it increased sales in its wireless division, while Telus (TSX:T) warned of a drop of wireless revenue in the first quarter.

At Research In Motion (TSX:RIM), the most recent quarterly profit beat analyst expectations as BlackBerry sales increased

Restivo said Canada's RIM and Apple, maker of the popular iPhone, were still running No. 1 and 2 in North America in terms of shipments.

Smartphones are helping both mobile phone manufacturers and carriers whose wireless networks run the devices.

"The carriers and handset suppliers are dependent upon smartphone sales for growth," he said.

In the second half of this year, Restivo said there's a "wave" of new smartphones expected to hit the market.