Android overtakes Symbian in smartphone sales

Google’s Android overtook the long-time market leader, Nokia’s Symbian, as the world’s most popular smartphone platform in the fourth quarter, according to the research firm Canalys. In total, 32.9m phones running Android were sold to retailers and mobile networks in the fourth quarter of 2010, compared with Symbian’s total sales of 31m in the quarter, the researcher said. In a press release, Canalys noted that Nokia had retained its lead as the single biggest smartphone vendor, with a 30.6% share of phones shipped.

The rise of Android to the top of the smartphone sales chart indicates the free operating system’s popularity with vendors, who do not have to pay a license fee to use it on their phones. Pete Cunningham, a senior analyst with Canalys, said that the company’s most recent forecast expects Android used to continue to grow at least twice as fast as the smartphone market itself, which grew by 88.6% between the fourth quarters of 2009 and 2010, from 53.7m phones sold to 101.2m.

But he warned that low-end vendors such as China’s Huawei and ZTE would create problems for other players such as LG, Sony Ericsson, and Motorola, trying to reinvent their product lines to capture high-end sales. HTC and Samsung are in the strongest position, accounting for nearly 45% of Google OS-based handset shipments. “Motorola and Sony Ericsson were trying to supply to all market segments, and they haven’t done that,” said Cunningham. “Samsung and Nokia are the only two that can do that. So, the only option for Motorola and Sony Ericsson is to reinvent themselves. On the higher tier of the platform, there are high margins to be made.”

The biggest loser in sales terms was Microsoft, the only company to power fewer smartphones – 3.1m compared with 3.9m in Q4 2009. Given that it said last week that 2m phones running its new Windows Phone 7 OS have shipped to retailers and networks since its launch at the end of October, that suggests that 1.1m phones running the now-orphaned Windows Mobile OS were also sent. However, Nokia was the biggest loser in terms of market share, dropping by 13.8%, while Android rose by 24.2%. Apple lost 0.3% in share, shipping 16.2m phones, and RIM, the maker of the BlackBerry range, lost 5.6%, even while both grew the numbers of phones shipped.

“2010 has been a fantastic year for the smartphone market. After a difficult 2009, the speed with which the market has recovered has required real commitment and innovation from vendors, and they have risen to the challenge,” said Canalys VP and principal analyst Chris Jones. “But vendors cannot afford to be complacent. 2011 is a highly competitive year with vendors looking to use new technology, such as dual-core processors, NFC, and 3D displays, to differentiate their products and maintain value.”

Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) remained the largest market, with shipments totaling 38.8m and a year-on-year growth rate of 90%. Nokia continued to lead in EMEA and Asia Pacific. Still, in 2010 it was overtaken by RIM in Latin America, which shipped over a million more units than Nokia in Q4 2010, helped by the popularity of its mid-range smartphones, such as its Curve family of devices.

Separately, RIM claimed today that it won the smartphone wars in the UK for December, saying that data from GfK estimated it had sold half a million BlackBerry devices in the UK in that month, capturing a record high of 36% of the UK smartphone market including 51.1% of the smartphone pre-pay market, and 23.3% of the contract and SIM-free market. RIM claims it made up 14.9% of the total mobile handset market for the UK in December 2010.



Cunningham said Android handset makers would increasingly move into the pre-pay market in the coming year and drive down prices. The US is still the largest country market in shipments, at more than double the size of the Chinese smartphone market. RIM recaptured first place from Apple, as the latter experienced its usual US seasonal dip, and RIM benefited from the first full quarter of shipments for the BlackBerry Torch.

But that, too, could change. “The US landscape will shift this coming year dramatically due to the Verizon-Apple agreement,” said Canalys analyst Tim Shepherd. “Verizon will move its focus away from the [Android-based] Droid range, but the overall market impact will mean fewer carrier-exclusive deals while increasing the AT&T opportunity for Android vendors, such as HTC, Motorola, and Samsung.”

Android was by far the largest smartphone platform in the US market in Q4 2010, with shipments of 12.1m units – nearly three times those of RIM’s BlackBerry devices. Windows Phone 7 devices appeared too late in the quarter to take full advantage of holiday season purchasing. As a result, Microsoft lost its share in the US, from 8% in Q4 2009 to 5% in Q4 2010.