Who won the summer smartphone battle?

As the critical fourth-quarter holiday shopping season looms--which is guaranteed to be a deluge of new smartphones--it's probably worth taking a quick break and revisiting the results from this summer.

If you remember, this summer was the summer of smartphones. We had the unveiling of the iPhone 3GS, the Palm Pre and the BlackBerry Tour. While there were a number of other new smartphone introductions, I would argue these three devices were the most notable to hit store shelves this summer, based on market hype, carrier promotional efforts and sheer noteworthiness. Indeed, here in Denver lines formed outside stores for the launch of both the iPhone 3GS and the Palm Pre, to my astonishment.

So, how did the summer smartphone war play out? Well, to no one's surprise the iPhone 3GS was the big winner. Apple said it sold a whopping 1 million devices on launch weekend, and more recently AT&T Mobility said it activated 3.2 million iPhones in the third quarter. Meanwhile, Palm said it sold 823,000 smartphones in its most recent quarter, and that the "vast majority" of those phones were of the Pre variety. As for the BlackBerry Tour? I have no clear sales numbers on that, other than word from my friends at comScore that sales numbers are low enough that they can't provide an official estimate--meaning, sales below 1 million units. (RIM does not disclose sales figures for the Tour.)

But what does that mean for the upcoming holiday season? It means the iPhone is still the one to watch, but there's plenty of room to grow. And, based on some numbers I recently received from my friends at Nielsen, it appears that the devices with the most hype aren't necessarily the ones that end up registering the most sales. Nielsen conducts monthly surveys of around 30,000 wireless subscribers, and thereby derives pretty reliable data on what phones are selling and in what numbers. Although Roger Entner at Nielsen wouldn't disclose actual numbers, he did give me a ranking of the smartphones with the largest installed base. I would consider this a "best-selling" list of smartphones, those that actually ended up in users' hands.

1. RIM BlackBerry 8300 series (Curve, 8310, 8320, 8330, 8350i)
2. Apple 3G iPhone
3. RIM BlackBerry 8100 series (Pearl,8110, 8120, 8129)
4. Apple iPhone series
5. Palm Centro
6. RIM BlackBerry 8800 series (8820, 8830)
7. RIM BlackBerry 9530 series (Storm)
8. HTC Star Trek
9. Samsung SGH-i607 series (BlackJack)
10. Motorola Q9 series (Q9c, Q9h, Q9m)

I think these findings are pretty interesting. Naturally, the BlackBerry Curve, the iPhone and the BlackBerry Pearl are at the top, but I think the fact that the Palm Centro and the Moto Q made the list is interesting, since it indicates that wireless users appear willing to hold on to devices that those in the wireless industry consider largely obsolete.

So this is probably worth keeping in mind as we head into the hoopla of the fourth quarter: Today's most-hyped handsets might not catch on with all those regular users out there. --Mike