The Global Rise of the Smartphone

BlackBerry maker Research in Motion (s rimm) broke into the top five handset vendors during the first quarter of this year, according to numbers released by research firm IDC. It attributed the success of RIM’s smartphones in part to “text-crazy teens” and strong demand for the BlackBerry Curve 8520 and BlackBerry Bold 9700.

Growth in the handsets many of us think of when it comes to smartphones — Apple’s iPhone (s aapl) and the HTC phones for Android (s goog), which are found in IDC’s chart under the “others” category and RIM’s devices — are growing faster than the handset market overall, the data shows. in other words, the global rise of the smartphone is upon us.

In the U.S. and in the tech community, we may take it for granted that the phone and the web should blaze along at 3G (and soon 4G speeds) with user-friendly interfaces, touchscreens and an app market, but the rest of the world — and even large portions of North America — has been moving at a slower pace. A whopping 83 percent of Americans have a feature phone while there are only 400 million smartphones in a world with 4.6 billion mobile subscribers. But the smartphones are coming, as IDC noted with regards to handset maker LG’s success:

The abundance of feature phones at varying price points kept the company in good stead with carriers and customers, particularly within emerging markets where LG reaped triple-digit growth. Still, the lack of a broad and deep smartphone portfolio made it vulnerable to competitor share gains, particularly within North America.

This matters because in the debate over Apple vs. Android, and whether or not HP (s hpq) can save Palm’s webOS, it appears that the battle lines are drawn and that the market dynamics are already set. But clearly the rest of the world, and the large portion of people toting feature phones, are not the dregs of the market but the massive middle, and the opportunity to reach them with compelling products that are differentiated — perhaps cheaper or tailored to their circumstances (text-crazy teens perhaps) — is still one worth chasing. Just ask Nokia (s nok). It’s moving slowly, but it isn’t ready to hang up on the opportunity.

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