You have probably heard by now, as reported in the WSJ, that findings from market researcher Canalys placed Android sales in the fourth quarter of last year as the clear #1 handset OS, ahead of perennial-leader-because-Nokia-ships-it-in-just-about-everything-but-now-on-permanent-decline Symbian, as well as Apple and RIM, in that order. What is very significant is that Android shipments were just about double Apple and RIM (each), and regardless greater than the two of them combined! And it's going to stay this way until another Linux-based OS comes along to challenge Android, which can indeed still happen. Nonetheless, I and a few other analysts have been predicting that Android would reach the top, and quickly, so no surprise here. Why? Well, you've seen this exact same scenario before, as follows.
In the beginning, there was DOS. It was a piece of crap, but few really knew that because hardly any users knew what an OS was, and fewer cared. Apple changed the game with the Mac, and should have grabbed the top slot. But they didn't, because (a) the Mac was simply too expensive for most, and (b) DOS and then various flavors of Windows (from the "Winshell" versions up through 3.1, through 95/98 and into today's modern (let's give them the benefit of the doubt for the moment) XP and 7) ran on far more products than Apple. Apple likes proprietary, but the nature of today's computer technology limits the appeal of such a strategy for most. Anyway, Windows, still a piece of crap, got greater than 90% market share, despite such boners as ME and Vista, simply by having so many companies wanting to sell PCs, understanding that building yet another OS makes no market sense (remember BeOS and so many others?) and Microsoft's dogged marketing coupled with questionable monopolistic business practices.
Cut to today, and we have exactly the same situation. Apple is still the innovator redefining the game, but still likes closed and proprietary, and Google is providing a very similar but more open experience at a far lower cost to a far greater number of customers. RIM looks a lot like an earlier version of Apple, although they've fallen behind in the innovation game, which is what happens to leaders when they get complacent. And ditto for Microsoft, who will make nary a dent in the handset market no matter what they do (short of buying market share, which Wall Street won't really let them do). RIM is down but not out, and I expect them to continue to be a strong #3, after Apple. BTW, Apple only gets to be #2 because of handset subsidies, which allow them to build a strong user base that otherwise would be unobtainable - their costs are just too high, sounding familiar once again. But, regardless, the blowout-success scenario of Windows over the Mac won't happen in the case of Android (or whatever Linux version eventually wins) vs. iOS.
And, yes, that other version of Linux could be WebOS, Ubuntu, or one of several others, like MeeGo. Google remains at its core an advertising company, and when the advertising/privacy backlash gains momentum, there will be other choices to fill the resulting gap.
Mathias is a principal at Farpoint Group, a wireless advisory firm in Ashland, Mass.