December 3, 2010, 3:29 PM

iPhone and BlackBerry vie for top smartphone spot, research firms show

But is the total number of smartphones in use the number retailers should be watching?

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Once, not so long ago, the clear majority of smartphones on the market were BlackBerrys. Research in Motion (RIM), the maker of BlackBerrys, ruled the roost, and then some. Then along came Apple Inc.’s iPhone, and later Google Inc’s Android, and BlackBerry’s lead began to erode.

Just-released data from research giant The Nielsen Co. shows that in the third quarter, for the first time, BlackBerry no longer has the greatest share of smartphones in use. The iPhone has edged out BlackBerry phones as the No. 1 smartphone with 27.9% market share to BlackBerry’s 27.4%. BlackBerry is down from 35% in Q2 2010 and 37% in Q2 2009. The iPhone was flat compared with Q3 2010 and up from 21% in Q2 2009.

Another prominent research firm, though, still shows BlackBerry in the lead. According to new data from comScore Inc., for the three months ending in October 2010, smartphones with the BlackBerry operating system hold 35.8% market share, down from 39.3% in the three months ending in July 2010. Apple’s iPhone has 24.6%, up from 23.8%.

The research firms’ numbers may differ because of the different survey samples. Nielsen based its market share figures of smartphones in use on a survey of 20,000 mobile phone owners. ComScore based its figures on a monthly survey of more than 10,000.

One way or the other, the number of smartphones in use is not the only indicator that can help retailers crafting mobile commerce strategies. The more important number, m-commerce experts say, is the amount of e-commerce site traffic stemming from devices running each of the major smartphone operating systems. In this case, most retailers in m-commerce and technology providers operating mobile sites for retailers report that BlackBerry lags far behind the iPhone and Android smartphones.

“Although BlackBerry has been dominant for a long time in smartphones, it has not been the dominant platform when it comes to mobile traffic to retail sites,” says Christopher Mason, managing director at Branding Brand Communications, which builds mobile sites and apps and operates text messaging programs. “The iPhone has always been dominant, and Android has been growing fast. Across the sites we’ve seen, in general BlackBerry only accounts for between 6-12% of mobile traffic while Android is about 25% and the iPhone is in the 40s, which is not including the iPod Touch, which also has a strong showing.”

Also important is the culture surrounding each brand of smartphone. And apps have not played as important a role for BlackBerry users as they have for iPhone and Android owners, industry observers say and the total number of apps in the different app stores shows.

“Apple has the dominant position in retail and lifestyle apps, and these numbers are trending so fast on Android that retailers should consider both platforms when building apps,” Mason says. “People on BlackBerrys are just not going for retail and lifestyle apps. BlackBerry is not the platform to put in the forefront of consideration.”

Nielsen shows Android coming in third and booming. In Q3 2010, 22.7% of smartphones in use employed the Android operating system, compared with 13.0% in Q2 2010 and just 2.0% in Q2 2009. ComScore also shows Android coming in third, with 23.5% of the market in the three months ending in October compared with 17.0% in the three months ending in July.

Both research firms show Windows Mobile and Palm trailing far behind and losing market share.

As for percentage of all mobile phones in use that are smartphones, Nielsen says 31% while comScore says 25%.

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