Photo by Gerwin Sturm.

The latest marketshare stats tell us how the smartphone market is evolving—and boy howdy, it’s all happening fast. Lots of stats this week show just how rapidly the mobile landscape is changing. First up, Canalys yesterday published its 2010 Q4 market data on smartphones, and here are a few of the tastier tidbits:

  • Smartphone adoption is growing fast. Smartphone sales nearly doubled (89 percent) from the same quarter last year: 101.2 million phones sold in Q4 2010.

  • Android is growing fastest. Android-based phones outsold all other operating systems worldwide in the quarter (32.9 million phones, or 33 percent), edging out Nokia’s Symbian phones (31 million). HTC and Samsung made the most popular Android handsets (45 percent of Android phones sold).

  • The US is the biggest single country for smartphone sales. Twice the size of the Chinese market. Android was by far the best-selling smartphone platform in the US in Q4 (53 percent according to The NPD Group).

  • Fastest smartphone growth is in Europe, Middle East, and Africa. Sales up 90 percent from the same quarter last year.

  • But it’s still a Nokia world. Even if its Symbian operating system wasn’t on top, Nokia is still the number one seller of smartphone hardware (28 percent of Q4 worldwide sales). Nokia leads in Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Asia Pacific, but not Latin America, where BlackBerry took the lead.

  • Slow start for Windows Phone 7. Microsoft’s new smartphone operating system arrived somewhat late in the quarter, so these numbers don’t quite tell the whole story, but still: Microsoft lost share in the United States, dropping from eight percent in Q4 2009 to five percent in Q4 2010. And it seems the new phones aren’t even faring that well against the old Windows Mobile. According to The NPD Group, Windows Mobile phones outsold Windows Phone 7 two to one in the US.

  • Everybody’s growing. It’s worth noting that while relative positions are shifting in the market, everybody is selling lots more smartphones than last year. Even the companies who look like they’re losing ground above are still growing in absolute volume. Smartphones are gradually replacing dumb feature phones.

Meanwhile, Horace Dedieu offered this eye-opener on the iPhone’s overall smartphone market share:

The iPhone ended the quarter with 17.25% smartphone share and 4.2% phone share. Share of revenues was about 22% and share of earnings was about 51%.

I still hold that 20% smartphone share is possible for the iPhone. As the smartphone market slowly becomes the entire phone market that share will be worth something.

Catch that? Four percent of phones, but 51 percent of profits. Wow.

Update: Nielsen yesterday shared its US smartphone snapshot as of December 2010:

  • Nearly 1/3 of US mobile phones are smartphones. “As of December 2010, nearly a third (31%) of all mobile consumers in the United States owned smartphones, cellphones with app-based, web-enabled operating systems.”

  • Dead heat between Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry in US. It’s a three-way tie at 27 percent each, but the momentum is with Android, which accounted for 43 percent of US smartphone sales in Q4 2010 the last half of 2010, compared to 26 percent for Apple iOS and 20 percent for Blackberry RIM.

How important is this horse race for designers?

Most designers and developers don’t exactly follow quarterly marketshare reports with avid interest. But these numbers are important for designers to watch. They help us track the growth of “app phones” generally, telling us about the audience for our high-falutin’ mobile apps and websites. They also give us clues about the relative distribution—and importantly, the geographic distribution—of these smartphone platforms. As designers, we need to know what devices our customers use and how they use them.

It’s important to realize, though, that raw numbers don’t give us the whole story when it comes to deciding what platform to develop for. After all, if sheer popularity was the most important thing, everyone would be a Nokia developer, since Nokia’s Symbian operating system still claims the largest (by far) number of smartphone users worldwide. (Android has the biggest sales momentum, but there are more Symbian phones in use right now than any other smartphone.)

Choosing a platform to design for is about more than following the numbers, although that’s certainly part of it. There are a slew of other softer considerations. The personality and demographics of each of these operating system vary widely, and each effectively has its own culture, sensibility, and style of use. It seems obvious to say, but we tend to gloss over it: there’s no single mobile culture. Different types of people use different types of phones; the app experience changes from platform to platform; and our experience as designers and developers varies across operating systems, too.

It’s more important than ever to know your customer—not only in terms of traditional demographics, but how they use and approach their personal devices. iPhone users tend to see their phones (and their apps) as vehicles of content, media, and personal/emotional connection. Android users meanwhile tend to be more tech/tool oriented, with a more efficient view of their phone’s role in their lives. I’m painting with a broad brush here, but the personality I describe shines through in the apps—and in users’ expectations of them. As designers, we need to keep that personality in mind. An Android app should look like an Android app. An iPhone app should look like an iPhone app.

Like any competition, watching this horse race makes for interesting spectator sport, and I’m sure we all have favorites we’d like to see “win.” But right now there’s so much innovation at work, consumer uses for these devices are still evolving, and the remaining market is still so large (less than a third of US mobile phone owners have a smartphone). We’re very early in this game, and it’s entirely premature to choose a winner right now, no matter what the marketshare snapshots might say.

In fact, it’s not clear that there even will be a single winner. Because this class of device is so personal, because our uses vary so widely, I think there’s room for plenty of platforms. It’s not like the world of desktop computers, where compatibility issues, switching costs, and employer purchases nudged the industry into a winner-take-all scenario. Cloud storage and low app prices make switching costs low for smart phones, and compatibility just isn’t an issue. Purchasing decisions instead comes down to style, personality, cost, and even emotional attachment — all issues we should take into consider when we choose a platform to develop for.

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