Google Android Will Overtake BlackBerry, iOS

Android-based devices could outnumber BlackBerry smartphones and iPhones by the end of 2010, and match Symbian sooner than expected, says Wayne Rash

I suppose that it’s just as well that Apple’s Steve Jobs is used to being at the bottom in terms of market share, because it’s about to happen again. According to Gartner research it will happen by the end of 2010, when the Android mobile OS will have surpassed both Apple’s iOS and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry operating system to reach second place behind only Symbian. By 2014, according to the report, Android and Symbian will be approximately equal in market share.

Interestingly, this growth to parity with Symbian is happening about two years sooner than Gartner had predicted in 2009. What’s happened, of course, is that Android has been adopted by a wide variety of manufacturers this year, and it’s selling a lot of those devices at prices far lower than Apple sets for the iPhone. In the United States, where Nokia’s presence is relatively low, Android is expected to reach the top spot by the end of 2010.

Android growth

There are many reasons for the explosive growth of Android phones. In the United States, there are a lot of users who can’t use the sole iPhone carrier, AT&T, and a lot who could but don’t want to, either because they’re happy with whatever company provides their wireless service now or because AT&T’s service has got a poor reputation due to problems with iPhone service.

Android phones, on the other hand, are available from every carrier in the United States, and they’re made by nearly every company that builds smartphones.

This wide range of choice means that you don’t have to do things Apple’s way if you don’t want to. And you don’t have to use your smartphone in any particular way because of the number of form factors and interfaces available for Android devices. Giving users a range of choices has always worked well, and it works even better when that range of choices is also less expensive than the alternative.

Apple is trying to combat the market-share erosion caused by Android devices by letting other carriers sell the iPhone. In the United States, it appears that T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless will be getting the iPhone in the near future, and all five UK operators already stock the device. However, the chance of Apple actually pulling off an Android upset is remote. The iPhone is too expensive for many buyers who are looking for a phone that’s smart enough, but still affordable. Android can offer that, while Apple has been going after the high end of the market and that isn’t going to change.

The Symbian challenge

It’s the long run that’s the most interesting, however. Just as Gartner missed the mark on Android growth last year, it’s very likely the predictions are also too conservative this year. The reason lies in the nature of the Symbian market and Nokia’s smartphones. Symbian has a large market share due to a preponderance of legacy devices, legacy here being another term for “old.” While much of the world has a much lower level of turnover than happens in the United States and Western Europe, old phones are still going to be replaced when they die or when they fail to meet their users’ needs. Nokia, with its aging phone population, faces that turnover much sooner than does the Android world.

So what’s going to happen is that a portion of those old Nokia phones are going to be replaced with Android devices, while a much smaller portion of Android devices will be replaced with Symbian phones. Nokia’s market share will sink while Android’s market share grows. I think the crossing point will happen sooner than predicted in 2014 and could happen as soon as the end of 2012.

At that point, Android devices will be tops in market share globally. Nokia’s share will continue to erode, as will RIM’s and Apple’s. Unless Apple can find a way to step up its development rate or provide a broader choice in models, it’s likely that the popularity of iPhones will decline fairly quickly. RIM will have a similar problem with the BlackBerry, but not to the same extent. RIM has a solid business base that the other makers don’t and can’t get a part of. But that’s not going to keep RIM at the top of the heap, either.

Microsoft wild card

There is, of course, a wild card. Microsoft is getting ready to release its new phone and its new Windows Phone 7 operating system. If the Redmond team can get past the clunky interface and vague models showed in earlier versions of Windows Mobile and the ill-fated Kin line, and if the company can sell those phones at a highly competitive price, then you may see Microsoft gaining significant market share. Right now we don’t know what will happen, but remember, one reason Windows has such a huge part of the computer operating system market today is because Microsoft let anybody sell Windows, and machines running it were far cheaper than those running the Mac OS.

If Microsoft does the same thing with phones, then it could be a factor that upsets all of those carefully (or not-so-carefully) thought-out predictions. We’ll have to see, but I think Android is still going to come out on top.