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Apple Loses the First Mover Smartphone Advantage

The Apple (AAPL) iPhone hasbeen the pace setter of smartphones, but that may have come to an end. According to a Nielsen survey for October 2010, the iPhone and Google (GOOG) Android are tied for the handsets most desired by consumers. In addition, Android U.S. market share is in a statistical dead heat with iPhone. Given some new Android phones on the horizon, Apple will have to increase its pace of innovation if it wants to keep its market position.

Here's a Nielsen graph that shows the smartphone operating system next by likely upgraders:


Android seems to have the lower share, but because of the sampling that Nielsen used, there's enough uncertainty that the two are statistically equal, as their positions could as easily be reversed. (Or the difference between them could be even greater.) Now look at U.S. smartphone market share:


Again, there's a statistical dead heat between Apple, RIM (RIMM), and Google. The amazing thing is how quickly Google has virtually caught up to Apple in market share. Things get a little more complex when you break out upgraders by those who currently own smartphones and those with "featurephones" (i.e., "dumb" handsets):


So Apple does seem to have an edge when it comes to people who have already owned a smartphone. Google has a weakness, because consumers familiar with the device category seem to become biased toward Apple. Whether that is because of some perceived status advantage in owning an iPhone or shortcomings in some of the current Android-based devices is impossible to say.

Even with some shift back among smartphone users, Apple has no room for complacency. Because Android is available from so many manufacturers, the chance of some feature or advance that will capture public imagination is greater than for Apple, which must take all the steps itself. As my BNET colleague Damon Brown points out, Sharp will bring to market this winter two 3D Android smartphones that don't require special glasses. It could be that Android phones have only begun their sales ramp-up.

As for RIM, the fact that iPhones have already tied BlackBerrys for market share is a big problem. And Microsoft? I'd hate to be someone in charge of Windows Phone 7 who has to meet with CEO Steve Ballmer about now.

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