What smartphone operating systems are Americans buying and keeping?

Research firm comScore recently released its latest look at the smartphone operating system landscape, and the numbers are revealing.

But before getting into the numbers, it's perhaps more important to understand what the numbers represent. Every month, comScore researchers contact around 11,000 Americans and ask them what phone they currently own. The results, published on a three-month average that totals around 30,000 respondents, create a snapshot of Americans' phone ownership at a particular point in time--a snapshot that includes Motorola (NYSE:MMI) Atrix owners alongside Nokia (NYSE:NOK) 1661 owners.

Thus, comScore's numbers are much, much different than the quarterly shipment numbers that manufacturers and researchers like IDC and Gartner provide. Shipment numbers (both sell-through and sell-in) are the numbers of devices that manufacturers build and ship and sell to end users during each quarter. ComScore's numbers, on the other hand, reflect the total number of mobile phones that are actually living inside Americans' pockets and purses. Looking at the month-to-month changes in comScore's numbers show both the new phones that people are buying and the old phones they're getting rid of--and all those in between.

Now, let's get into the actual numbers (February is the most recent month that comScore has covered). Here are the overall figures for mobile device and smartphone ownership:

comscore smartphone ownership

Interestingly, according to comScore, the number of Americans who actually own a mobile phone has not changed over the course of the past year: It has sat at exactly 234 million for the past 12 months. This means that wireless carriers are battling over market share and not for new subscribers--of course, this statement contains a number of caveats. First, wireless carriers continue to look to new, non-phone devices for additional revenues, such as tablets, M2M devices and e-readers. Also, there's a big difference in carrier revenues between prepaid and postpaid subscribers, and most carriers are working to entice prepaid subscribers onto postpaid plans with smartphones that are only available (or are only affordable) on those postpaid plans.

As for smartphones, the red line should come as no surprise to anyone: More and more wireless users are upgrading to smartphones. This trend is expected to continue.

Now, let's get on to the main event: Smartphone operating system market share:

comscore smartphone operating system market share usa

There are a lot of conclusions, or at least suppositions, to be made from this data. But let's get the first, most obvious thing, out of the way: Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android platform is growing at an astounding rate. This is due to a number of factors that many other market watchers have pointed out: Android phones are available from a wide variety of carriers at a wide variety of prices with a wide range of service plans. Thanks to its range of apps, its touchscreen friendliness, the stickiness of Google's online services and Google's attempts to stay on the cutting edge of smartphone innovation, Android has emerged as the go-to platform for wireless players keen on taking advantage of the smartphone opportunity. So, that's Android.

But the other platforms are perhaps more interesting to examine. Specifically, Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) share of the market has remained relatively unchanged at around 25 percent. I'm guessing this means that everyone who wants to buy an iPhone already has one, and those huge lines you see every year of shoppers keen to purchase the latest version of the device are mostly people who already own an iPhone and are simply upgrading their device. And as for the astounding iPhone shipment growth Apple reports every quarter?

quarterly iphone shipment growth

This is likely attributable to sales of new devices to existing iPhone owners coupled with sales of new iPhones to non-iPhone users in international markets.

The upshot? Apple appears stalled at 25 percent of the U.S. market. (To be clear: The actual number of iPhone owners is growing, given that the smartphone market itself is growing. But Apple's share of that market is not growing. "It's important to note that Apple continues to grow their installed base, though the Android growth has held their share flat," noted comScore analyst Mark Donovan.)

Finally, there's one more important item to point out about Apple: The effects of the Verizon Wireless iPhone are not yet fully reflected in comScore's numbers. The firm's February 2011 figures represent a "three month average period ending in February," and the Verizon (NYSE:VZ) iPhone went on sale Feb. 10. Thus, comScore's March numbers should provide a clearer look at how well the Verizon iPhone sold.

"While we haven't reported unit sales of Verizon iPhone, it was the most acquired device in February by a wide margin, and we show more than 1 million iPhone owners on Verizon," wrote comScore's Donovan, noting the numbers are muted due to comScore's three-month average.

(Also, comScore's numbers don't reflect Apple iPod touch or iPad sales.)

But what about the rest of the market? It appears Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 launch was a non-event. The software giant launched its overhauled smartphone operating system in November with $200 phones from the likes of Samsung, HTC and LG and carrier support from AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) and T-Mobile USA, but the launch did nothing to Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) market share figures. (ComScore tallies both Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7 in Microsoft's number.) It's possible that a large number of Windows Mobile users purchased Windows Phone 7 phones during November, a switch that would not show up in comScore's numbers, but that's a bit doubtful. Given Microsoft's major Windows Phone 7 marketing push, it's likely the company was hoping for more.

(Microsoft in December announced its licensees shipped a combined 1.5 million Windows Phone 7-powered gadgets to carriers across the world during the first six weeks of the platform's availability, but that figure has nothing to do with sales or ownership numbers.)

BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) too doesn't seem to be doing so great--the longtime smartphone leader in the U.S. market was overtaken by Google's Android in January. The company's last major device launch was the BlackBerry Torch for AT&T in August, and RIM has been relatively silent since. The company has said it plans to move its smartphones onto its new QNX operating system, which powers its PlayBook tablet, a move company executives likely hope will rekindle BlackBerry's fortunes.

And Palm? The company has been largely flying under the radar since Hewlett-Packard acquired the firm last year. HP is preparing to launch a handful of new webOS gadgets in the coming months, an event that could help boost Palm's market share.

As for Nokia's Symbian, comScore does not report the platform's market share--likely because it is not significant in the United States.

Finally, here's one last mathematical trick using the data comScore publishes every month: The actual number of users for each of the major smartphone operating systems:

February 2011 U.S. Smarthpone Ownership Statistics
Platform Market share Number of users
RIM 28.9% 20,085,500
Apple 25.2% 17,514,000
Microsoft 7.7% 5,351,500
Palm 2.8% 1,946,000
Google 33.0% 22,935,000

This figure could be useful for mobile application developers keen on gauging the exact value of the smartphone market, and debating where to focus their efforts. Of course, as comScore's Donovan points out, the figures don't include Apple's iPod touch or iPad. He said, based on his discussions with developers, Apple's iOS platform is still the most popular one among developers due to the breadth of the iOS market.

For more:
- see comScore's December 2009 release
- see comScore's January 2010 release
- see comScore's February 2010 release
- see comScore's May 2010 release
- see comScore's December 2010 release
- see comScore's January 2011 release
- see comScore's February 2011 release

What smartphone operating systems are Americans buying and keeping?