Android Grabs the Smartphone OS Lead, Passing Nokia's Symbian

Smartphones based on Google's (GOOG) Android operating system took the global lead in the fourth quarter, booting Nokia's (NOK) Symbian from its long-held position as the world's most popular mobile-phone platform, according to a report released Monday by research firm Canalys.

In many respects, that shift comes as no surprise given the fast adoption rate of Android by a host of smartphone makers, from LG to Samsung to HTC to Motorola Mobility (MMI). Over the past year, quarterly reports from other research firms such as Gartner Research have also tracked the rapid rise of Android, which has leaped past Apple's (AAPL) iOS and Research In Motion's (RIMM) mobile operating system.

Android-based handsets accounted for 32.9% of worldwide smartphone shipments in the fourth quarter, compared with Symbian's 30.6% market share, according to Canalys. Apple's iOS was a distant third, with 16%. And as in the previous quarter, Android's rivals lost year-over-year market share, while Android substantially grew.

Baked into the Android figures are the numbers for Tapas and Open Mobile System (OMS), two Chinese mobile operating systems based on Android. And Samsung and HTC helped push Android's figures higher, accounting for 45% of the 33.3 million Android-based smartphones shipped in the quarter.

Smartphone OS worldwide market share
Smartphone OS worldwide market share

In the U.S., Android outpaced its competitors by an even wider margin. Android-based shipments topped 12.1 million units in the fourth quarter -- three times larger than RIM's BlackBerry smartphones.

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In the coming months, industry watchers expect a change in the type of smartphones that U.S. carriers Verizon Wireless (VZ) and AT&T (T) will promote. On Feb. 10, Verizon will begin selling the Apple iPhone, for which AT&T previously held exclusive U.S. distribution rights.

"The U.S. landscape will shift dramatically this coming year, as a result of the Verizon-Apple agreement," said Tim Shepherd, a Canalys analyst, in a statement. "Verizon will move its focus away from the Droid range, but the overall market impact will mean less carrier-exclusive deals, while increasing the AT&T opportunity for Android vendors, such as HTC, Motorola and Samsung."

The net effect of this expected market shift will become evident in the coming two quarters as Verizon and AT&T report their quarterly results.

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