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Network Operators Reach Smartphone OS Crossroads


U.S. mobile network service providers have reached an important crossroads -- they now have a clear software operating system (OS) choice: but which ecosystem will they favor going forward, Apple's or Google's?

By the end of 2011, the iPhone will no longer be the number one smartphone in the U.S. marketplace.

According to the latest market share estimates by eMarketer, with Google’s Android operating system surging ahead to first place, there's no compelling reason why network operators must concede to the numerous demands of Apple and its walled-garden business model.

Google Android will be installed on 37 percent of all smartphone handsets in the country by year-end -- up 13 percentage points over 2010. Apple will likewise see its OS increase share, but only slightly -- from 28 percent of the market last year to 29 percent this year.

Apple's iOS will continue to inch upward in market share through 2013, but by that time Google Android will hold more than two-fifths of the U.S. smartphone market. The growth in Android usage comes mostly at the expense of Research In Motion’s (RIM) BlackBerry, which eMarketer predicts will drop from 30 percent of the market in 2010 to just 15 percent in 2013.

Two Front-Runners Distance Themselves from Others

Shares for Microsoft’s and other trailing competitor operating systems -- including Nokia’s Symbian -- will also dwindle over the forecast period.

"The battle for U.S. smartphone market share continues to look like a two-horse race between Android and iOS," said eMarketer Principal Analyst Noah Elkin.

Within two years, Google and Apple will control nearly three-quarters of this key segment, making it very difficult for contenders like Microsoft and RIM to achieve scale.

Apparently, eMarketer bases its smartphone OS forecasts on a meta-analysis of survey data, traffic data, smartphone sales data, smartphone shipments, company reports and company news releases.

In terms of users, Google Android will more than double again this year after posting 496 percent growth in 2010. eMarketer estimates the number of Android users will rise from 33.4 million this year to 50.4 million in 2013.

The Apple iOS user population will also grow substantially, from 26.1 million this year to 38.4 million in 2013. Despite the large addressable audience of Android users, many marketers remain more interested in advertising on the iPhone.

Network Operators Can Now Participate in Marketing

One fact that has helped Google’s OS to grow in terms of usage -- its availability on a range of devices from several manufacturers -- may also be hurting it here, as device fragmentation makes marketing efforts more difficult.

But Android’s growing influence on the U.S. smartphone market gives mobile network operators the strategic opportunity to step out from underneath the shadow that Apple has cast upon this marketplace.

Apple has used its negotiation power to control and shape the service provider marketing offerings -- this relationship has seemed less like a partnership, more like a Apple-led dictatorship. Is now the right time for a rebellion? We'll have to wait and see.

Update: here's an insightful perspective on how the "Financial Times Enjoys Life Beyond the App Store" -- it demonstrates a rebellious bold move by a legacy media company to free itself from Apple's tyranny. Yet another noteworthy trend is the Apple iOS Jailbreaking phenomenon.

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