In smartphones, it's an Android world; other than Apple, everyone else can go home

To all those folks who keep arguing that there’s just bound to be a third player in the smartphone operating system battle: I wouldn’t bet on it.

The latest market share data from Canalys, released today, indicates that Google’s Android is going to continue gobbling up the lion’s share of the market, leaving only a sizable bite behind for Apple — and crumbs for everyone else.

In the fourth quarter, Android-based phones accounted for nearly 150 million of the 216.5 million smartphones shipped worldwide. That gave the operating system 69 percent of the worldwide market. Android’s share was up from 52 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 and about 33 percent in the fourth quarter of 2010.

Android’s share was down from the 74 percent it posted in the third quarter of last year, according to Canalys. But one could argue that was almost entirely due to Apple’s release of the iPhone 5, which boosted the company’s share in the fourth quarter back to around where it had been a year earlier.

And for the full year last year, Android phones comprised 67.6 percent of the global market, which was up from 48.8 percent in 2011.

Androids gains have come at the expense of the older smartphone operating systems that used to rule the market: Symbian, which was backed by Nokia; Microsoft’s Windows Mobile; and BlackBerry, from the former Research In Motion. In the most recent quarter, BlackBerry phones held just 3.5 percent of the global market, giving it third place. Windows at 2.4 percent and Symbian, at 1.5 percent, rounded out the top 5 operating system vendors. Symbian’s decline has been particularly steep. Just two years earlier, Symbian was the second most popular smartphone operating system, with 31 percent of the global market, and three years earlier, it was the most popular operating system, with 44 percent of the market.

But it’s not just that the old stalwarts have been completely removed from their positions. No new entrants have been able to challenge Android’s rise or Apple’s place. Palm’s WebOS is long gone. Samsung’s homebrewed Bada operating system is fading, with just 1 percent of the market in the fourth quarter, which was down from the 2.4 percent share it had a year earlier. And added up together, all of the smartphone operating systems outside of the top 6 (which includes Bada) only accounted for  0.4 percent of the global market.

To be sure, Microsoft’s Windows Phone did see some modest success in the fourth quarter. Its share was up just 1.9 percent in the third quarter and 1.6 percent in the holiday quarter of 2011.

But holding less than 3 percent of the market does not give one claim to being a viable rival to the top 2. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see Microsoft’s share slip in coming quarters, because sales of Windows Phone devices were likely boosted by the release of Windows Phone 8 in the fall and the huge marketing campaign that Microsoft launched with the release of both that software and Windows 8 for PCs. But if all those marketing dollars bought you less than one percentage point of market share at the same time that older rivals are rapidly losing share, you’ve got to wonder about the underlying consumer demand for your product.

Of course, there are other wannabe players on the way. BlackBerry just started to release phones running its new operating system. And Firefox maker Mozilla is developing its own mobile operating system. Those or some other operating system may eventually gain some traction. But for now, the smartphone market is looking like it will end up just like the PC market did 20 years ago, with Android playing the part of Windows and Apple reprising its role as the only real alternative.

(Photo courtesy of Samsung.)

Troy Wolverton Troy Wolverton (250 Posts)

Troy writes the Tech Files column as the Personal Technology Columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. He also covers the digital media, mobile and video game industries and writes occasionally about Apple, chips, social networking and other aspects of technology. Previously, Troy covered Apple and the consumer electronics industry. Prior to joining the Mercury News, Troy reported on technology, business and financial issues for TheStreet.com and CNET News.com.