Google, Apple, and RIM: Win, Place, and Show in the Smartphone Horse Race

Last Updated May 21, 2010 11:14 AM EDT

A tidbit from the Google (GOOG) I/O developers' conference suggests that the balance of the mobile device world is about to flip yet again. Sales of hardware running the Android operating system have ramped so fast that they're within a hair of reaching Apple (AAPL) iPhone OS levels -- including current iPad estimates. Given that we can expect an iPhone G4 product next quarter, as well as historic growth rates of RIM's (RIMM) BlackBerry, it will be a dash to see who gets win, place, and show.

Google noted that Android currently sees 100,000 hardware activations a day. For perspective, in March 2009, the number was 30,000. By February 2010, it hit 60,000. That's a 67 percent increase since just last quarter, even more astounding when you consider that Android is already well-established in sales. And it translates into 9 million units a quarter. This is geometric growth.

Compare that to Apple. Last quarter the company sold 8.8 million iPhones. Here's a graph of unit movement per quarter that I put together in April (sales based on fiscal years, not calendar years):

Notice the cyclical variation that I'd attribute to Apple's pattern of releasing new models. It suggests that this quarter's movement is maybe the same, though I'd guess a bit less, given the leak about the iPhone 4G and the likelihood that people are delaying purchase until the new unit is available. So, call it 8 million units (and I'm being generous, given the circumstances). That's about 89,000 units a day.

Also consider the iPad. The most recent estimate I've seen of unit movement is 200,000 units a week. Apple said that it sold a million units in under a month, or 250,000 a week in the first rush, and that was before the 3G model availability. So 200,000 weekly, or 28,571 a day, doesn't seem outlandish. Add that to iPhone sales, and iPhone OS-based hardware devices are probably shipping 118,000 units a day, or 10.6 million a quarter. That's still a lead, but a rapidly disappearing one, given Android's adolescent-like growth spurt.

Where's RIM? Look at the graph below. Again, sales are by fiscal, not calendar, quarter, with the most recent having ended in February 2010:

The company's growth has been linear for a long time. I'd expect maybe 10.9 or 11 million units in the current current quarter. RIM is probably still ahead of Google and Apple, though only by a hair that is about to disappear.

That leads us to next quarter. On Apple's part, the iPhone 4G is in the works, and the new iPhone OS 4.0 looks strong. Given the previous patterns, I'd think that Apple could easily hit 11 million units next quarter. Assume some growth in iPad sales, taking good marketing and buzz into account but also the lack of a new model introduction. So maybe the iPad hits 250,000 units a week, or 3.2 million in the quarter. That would put Apple iPhone devices at just over 14 million units next quarter.

Next up, Google. It's already seeing 9 million Android hardware units a quarter. That was 67 percent growth over the previous quarter, and there are some hot new models coming, so assume the same quarter-to-quarter growth, rather than an even faster rate. That would put Google at 15 million Android unit shipments next quarter, not including any introductions of rumored tablet devices. Even if we take the same absolute unit growth rate between quarters, the company would still hit 12.6 units, putting it into second place, although my bet is on the former.

As for RIM, it has a new version of its operating system. However, growth has been fairly linear for a long time, so call it 11.5 million units next quarter. By all indications, RIM is about to drop from first place into third among this triumvirate, no matter how things shake out between Google and Apple in this mobile horse race.

Image: Flickr user Paolo Camera, CC 2.0.

  • Erik Sherman On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.