Windows Phone 8 may have a fighting chance

Microsoft's Windows Phone OS shows some momentum in its bid to overtake the No. 3 spot behind Android and iOS.

Gartner has released 2012 worldwide smartphone sales figures, and three companies have something to crow about: Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft. Well, Nokia and HTC by way of Microsoft. Regardless, WP8 now has real momentum.

Worldwide mobile phone sales totaled 1.75 billion units in 2012, a 1.7% decline from 2011 sales. The last time that happened was in 2009, and for the same reason: a bad economic situation, says Gartner.

The smartphone business continues to grow, with Q4 2012 sales up 38.3% from Q4 2011. The numbers, though, are confusing as all get out.

The Android market grew the most, doubling in size from 77 million units in Q4 2011 to 144 million in Q4 2012. It's hard to see where that growth came from because, aside from Samsung, almost everyone else is losing share in the tens of millions of units. The only vendor showing strength in the face of Samsung is ZTE.

And again, showing how you have to be careful, iOS grew substantially in numbers, but lost ground in percentage. Its sales went from 35.5 million to 43.5 million year-over-year from Q4 2011 to 2012, but its percentage fell simply because Android grew by so much more.

Of course, Android continues to grow like a weed not because of overwhelming support but because it's cheap. Apple's success in the face of this is a testament to Apple's own work.

And then there's Windows Phone. It enjoyed a very nice bounce, from 2.7 million units in Q4'11 to 6.2 million in Q4'12. Nokia, though, is taking it in the shorts because its Symbian business is falling faster than WP8 can make up for it.

Nokia's overall handset sales fell from 422 million in 2011 to 334 million in 2012. Symbian sales plunged from 17.5 million in 2011 to 2.5 million in 2012.

HTC, the other major player selling WP8 phones, also dropped, from 43 million in 2011 to 32 million in 2012.

RIM, now renamed BlackBerry, also took a beating. It fell from 51.5 million units in 2011 to 34.2 million in 2012. For the fourth quarter, unit sales stood at 7.3 million, only slightly ahead of WP8. At the current rate of momentum, Microsoft could become the number three player.

Or not. The excitement around the new BB10 phones is enormous and preorders have sold out quickly. BlackBerry could actually have a hit on its hands. So it looks like BB is down but not out.

Q1 will be interesting. BlackBerry ships the Z10 and Samsung will be delivering the ATIV S any day now, which is the Galaxy S III running WP8. So, as Android and iOS rumble for the top spot, Microsoft and BlackBerry will slug it out for No. 3.

That's only a win for us, as consumers. I'd rather the manufacturers and developers stay on their toes than get lazy and complacent.

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