Apple Holds Smartphone Lead, But Android Is Gaining

While Android (s goog) surges among new smartphone buyers, Apple’s iOS (s aapl) continues to hold on to the overall marketshare lead, although it remains within spitting distance of a fading BlackBerry OS (s rimm) and a hard-charging Android OS, according to the latest figures from the Nielsen Company.

According to November 2010 data, Apple holds 28.6 percent of the U.S. smartphone market, up slightly from 27.9 percent in October. BlackBerry OS slipped again in November to 26.1 percent, down from 27.4 percent in October and 33.9 percent in June. Android OS, meanwhile, closed the distance on Apple — reaching 25.8 percent in November, compared to 22.7 percent in October and 15 percent in June.

Android OS is still the best-selling smartphone OS among recent acquirers in the last six months, with a 40.8 percent share, compared to 26.9 percent for iOS and 19.2 percent for RIM. While Apple’s marketshare remains stable, Android continues to climb and BlackBerry OS shows no signs of halting its slide. While the overall marketshare puts the three rivals within just a few percentage points of each other, the latest numbers suggest that RIM is struggling to connect with users with its latest BlackBerry 6.0 devices and has a lot of work ahead of it. Android’s fast-paced growth, meanwhile, could put it on track to overtake iOS in the next month or two. But the market picture could also get altered significantly when Apple releases an iPhone on Verizon, which should goose iPhone sales. It may not prevent Android from eventually claiming the top spot, but a Verizon iPhone will likely buy Apple some more time.

This isn’t a simple horse race, mind you, because Apple and Google are not after the same things. Google needs to be a big seller for its advertising model to pay off, while Apple is still raking in handsome profits from its hardware, and will continue to do so even after Android eventually overtakes it. Apple has also managed to hold on to the top spot despite selling through only one carrier in the U.S. With an expected Verizon version, the iPhone will be more widely available, which should give us a better picture of how popular the phone is against the competition.

The big winner in all this is the smartphone market as a whole, which is growing rapidly: Nielsen said that 45 percent of recent phone buyers chose a smartphone in November, up from 34 percent in June, which suggests that we’re not too far off from a time when one out of every two handsets sold in the U.S. is a smartphone.

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