Android topples BlackBerry for U.S. smartphone OS lead

Jason Ankeny

Just weeks after Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android mobile operating system first surpassed Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL)'s iOS in the battle for U.S. smartphone subscriber market share, digital researcher comScore reports Android has now outstripped BlackBerry as well, ending the Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) platform's long run at the top. As of January 2011, Android now represents 31.2 percent of the nationwide smartphone market, a 7.7 percentage points increase since October 2010--during the same period, BlackBerry slipped 5.4 percentage points, and now accounts for 30.4 percent of the total U.S. smartphone market. iOS remained at a virtual standstill, increasing just 0.1 percentage point to 24.7 percent, while Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone slipped another 1.7 percentage points to 8.0 percent. (Palm's webOS brings up the rear at 3.2 percent, down from 3.9 percent three months earlier.)

The not-so-secret dark side to Android's explosive adoption is that the bigger the ecosystem grows, the bigger challenge platform fragmentation becomes. As of last month, Android 2.2 powers 57.6 percent of devices running the mobile OS, according to the Android Developers Device Dashboard--Android 2.1 accounts for 31.4 percent of devices, and Android 2.3 represents 0.8 percent. Just 6.3 percent of Android devices run 1.6, while Android 1.5 represents only 3.9 percent. With Android 3.0 coming on fast, Google last week extended its new Fragments API to applications running older versions of Android, enabling developers to adjust their software interfaces to fit newer Android smartphones and tablets. The Fragment solution is a self-contained component with its own UI and lifecycle; according to Google, Fragments can be re-used in different parts of an application's user interface depending on the desired flow for a given device or screen size.

"This new API, which is part of Honeycomb, does not help developers whose applications target earlier versions of Android," writes Android SDK tech lead Xavier Ducrochet on the Android Developers Blog. "Today we've released a static library that exposes the same Fragments API (as well as the new LoaderManager and a few other classes) so that applications compatible with Android 1.6 or later can use fragments to create tablet-compatible user interfaces." The library--dubbed "Android Compatibility package"--is available for download via the SDK Updater.

The schisms in the Android platform also attracted attention in the wake of last week's malware attack on Android Market: Google removed more than 50 Android apps--credited to developers Kingmall2010, we20090202 and Myournet--reportedly containing the DroidDream virus, which seeks to gain root access to the user's device, collecting a range of available data and downloading more malicious code to the smartphone without the consumer's knowledge or consent. Although as many as 250,000 Android device owners may have downloaded the apps before Google flipped its remote killswitch to nuke the software, all of the impacted phones run out-of-date versions of the Android OS--writing on the Official Google Mobile Blog, Android security lead Rich Cannings states the malware exploited known vulnerabilities with no effect on versions 2.2.2 or higher. "For affected devices, we believe that the only information the attacker(s) were able to gather was device-specific (IMEI/IMSI, unique codes which are used to identify mobile devices, and the version of Android running on your device)," Cannings adds.

Moving forward, Google plans to introduce a series of new security measures to prevent other Android Market applications from wreaking the same kind of havoc. The company is also collaborating with its partners to solve the storefront's underlying security questions. The DroidDream attack wasn't the first assault on Android Market and it almost certainly won't be the last--as Android keeps growing, so too will the target on its back. -Jason