Android On the Rise, Apple iOS Steady; Whither Symbian?

For all the talk of Apple's iOS and Google's Android, the market champion globally has been Nokia's Symbian. Or at least it was until the end of 2010. As we get ready for Mobile World Congress, in Barcelona February 14-17, news of Symbian's decline makes it sound like we're about ready to enter a two-OS mobile world.

In the United States mobile market, Symbian didn't really make the leap across the smartphone chasm, so it's been in the news less and less as first Apple's proprietary iOS and then Google's open-source Android emerged. Yet it remains a dominant player in a number of global markets, including those emerging markets whose handset numbers dwarf the U.S. and Europe's combined.

Canalys, a research firm with offices in Singapore, the UK and the U.S., released a study on Monday that indicated Symbian's sales for the fourth quarter of 2010 were at 31 million, a respectable increase from 23.9 million one year prior.

Yet Apple's shipment of iPhones increased from 8.7 million to 16.2 million per quarter for the same timeframe, and Android's sale skyrocketed from 8.7% of the global market in the fourth quarter of 2009 to represent almost 32.9% of the global smartphone market at the end of 2010, on sales of 33.3 million Android-based smartphones in Q4 2010.

For its part, Nokia isn't giving up easily, although it's done better in the feature phone market rather than the smartphone market, and the company's recently brought in a new chief executive officer to turn the company back toward market domination.

According to Reuters, new CEO Stephen Elop will unveil a new strategy for Nokia on the Friday before Mobile World Congress starts. Nokia's plans include more aggressive marketing in the U.S. and perhaps even Android-based smartphones, Reuters says.

If Nokia chooses to take Symbian out of the running, and if it lets its MeeGo Linux derivative go in favor of Android, where does that leave the market?

For clues on that, let's look at two announcements from January, the first just prior to the Consumer Electronics Show and the second just yesterday.

In early January, Nielsen announced numbers that showed how Google had begun to close the gap on Apple in the U.S. smartphone market.

In the last half of 2010, more than 40 percent of smartphones sold in the United States were based around the Android operating system.

Android's  surge in sales is one thing, buoyed as it is by a number of newer devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S and Nexus S, but what about overall market share?

It turns out that Nielsen reported the Android market share was 25.8% in the U.S. smartphone market, a bit behind both Research In Motion (RIM) at 26.1% and Apple at  28.6% of U.S. market share.

RIM, the company claims, was  "within the margin of error of both Apple iOS and Android" operating systems.

"Apple's clear lead over Android notwithstanding, this race might still be too close to call," Nielsen surmised, based on its end of November data.

But yesterday, research firm NPD stated that Android is now the leading operating system, based on data showing that Android increased its sales percentages in the last quarter of 2010.

While Nielsen showed 40% of sales fell Android's way in the U.S. smartphone market for the last half of 2010, NPD is saying that Android sales made up 50% of smartphone sales in the United States in the last three months of 2010.

NPD notes that Android only reaches a dominant position in terms of a divide-and-conquer approach, spreading out across numerous phones in much the same way that Microsoft spread out across a number of desktop computers when Apple was still playing in the single-hardware Macintosh world.

Apple's iPhone 4 was the top-selling smartphone in the fourth quarter of 2010, and its iPhone 3GS was the fourth best selling phone in that same timeframe. The three other top slots, however, were held by Android devices: Droid X by Motorola was number two, EVO by HTC was third and Motorola's Droid 2 was fifth. Of course, with the advent of the Verizon iPhone 4, it's possible the pendulum will swing back to Apple dominating three of the top five slots.

With numbers like that, it's easy to see how we could easily be facing a two-OS world when it comes to smartphones. With one company endorsing H.264 and the other WebM, we may very well face a prolonged period of time where the two-OS world and the two-codec worlds collide.

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