November 1, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Android Tops US Smartphone Market; iPhone Overtakes Blackberry

Smart consumers may be smarter than lemmings, but the species exhibit one remarkable behavior: Both gravitate towards whatever platforms lots of others are choosing.

Rather than doing this out of some sort of  mindless compulsion, perceptive smartphone buyers in particular follow trends because they lead to the platforms where the best app developers release the widest variety of apps. And it’s important to back the right horse early, because apps purchased for one smartphone app platform won’t necessarily work for another.

New U.S. smartphone numbers released by Canalys on Monday showed that Android (the Open Handset Alliance) led the U.S. smartphone market last quarter with 9.1 million units shipped, while Apple’s iPhone leapfrogged past RIM Blackberry into second place with 5.5 million units shipped.

Yes, this is a bunch of numbers. But they mean something to anyone in the market for a new smartphone within the next couple of years, which seems to be nearly all of us these days. Broadly speaking, they mean that both Android and iPhone should still be considered compelling smartphone platforms despite Android’s apparent lead, and that Blackberry has reason to be worried.

Still, many were confused by resulting reports that nearly twice as many Android phones (44 percent) shipped as iPhones (26 percent), while Apple nonetheless somehow led the U.S. market, using the same numbers.

This might seem contradictory, but it’s simple: The iPhone was the most-purchased smartphone hardware in America, while Android operating system variants running on multiple hardware designs (Samsung, HTC, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, LG, Huawei, Acer and others) — and sold by a much wider variety of cellphone carriers at a variety of price points — comprised the majority of shipped smartphone operating systems.

So, smart consumers should make their next smartphone an Android because that’s what most other people are doing and where the best apps will be available. Right? Not so fast.

Apple’s iPhone hardware sells much more than any single Android model, and in terms of the sheer number of apps downloaded, the iPhone beats every other platform handily. Many developers seem to write for iPhone first and Android second.

We appear to be back where we started in terms of Android and iPhone (more on that competition below). But in terms of RIM’s Blackberry, it apparently fell victim to Android’s success more than that of the iPhone.

“Much of Android’s quarterly share growth came at the expense of RIM, rather than Apple,” said Ross Rubin, NPD’s executive director of industry analysis. “The HTC EVO 4G, Motorola Droid X and other new high-end Android devices have been gaining momentum at carriers that traditionally have been strong RIM distributors, and the recent introduction of the BlackBerry Torch has done little to stem the tide.”

Back to iPhone vs. Android. The key to who will seize control of that burgeoning Coke-and-Pepsi-style stalemate is whether Google’s decentralized army of app developers, who can deploy anywhere, prove more effective than Apple’s centralized army of app developers, who write their applications once in order to have it run properly on the largest single-hardware-model install base rather than potentially worrying about potential variation in hardware and operating system design, the way Android app developers have to.

Ultimately, a seemingly simple issue — which smartphone you, your friends, and your family  should choose — hangs on a wonky matter of competing technical philosophies: whether tight or loose organization leads to a better ecosystem.