Android Wrests Smartphone OS Title From Symbian

2010 was the year of Android (s goog) when it comes to smartphones. That’s according to research firm Canalys, which reports Google’s operating system eclipsed Symbian in the fourth quarter to become the top smartphone OS in the world by shipments. Android’s share of the smartphone market jumped from 8.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009 to 32.9 percent in the fourth quarter last year, nudging past Symbian (s nok), which slipped from 44.4 percent to 30.6 percent over the same period.

The numbers confirm Android’s ascendency and are somewhat predictable considering the fast growth of Android, which we’ve followed since last year. But overall, the entire smartphone market grew by 89 percent year over year, with all the major players except Microsoft (s msft) growing their shipment numbers. The explosion of smartphones — Canalys said just under 300 million units were shipped last year — means opportunities across the industry and potentially more shifts to come. Still, the latest Canalys numbers represent a major milestone for the Android platform, which only launched in October of 2008. Since that time, it has bested pioneers and stalwarts such as Symbian, BlackBerry OS (s rimm), Windows Phone 7 (s msft) and iOS (s aapl).

This doesn’t mean the game is over. Apple is now ramping up production of CDMA iPhones, which should goose sales, especially in the U.S. with Verizon (s vz). Microsoft recently got underway with its mobile reinvention by launching Windows Phone 7, which should command more sales in the future. HP (s hpq) is poised to unleash a new slate of webOS phones and tablets and could become a player. RIM, meanwhile, has struggled, but is migrating its platform to its QNX-based OS, which looked promising in our PlayBook hands-on video and could give the company new life. Nokia is also pinning its hopes on newer versions of Symbian along with MeeGo, both of which will be tied together through the cross-platform Qt framework. And with smartphones still less than half of all cell phone sales, it means there’s still time for jockeying and growth among the existing players.

But at this moment, Android’s trajectory seems the most promising. With so many form factors and so many carriers and manufacturers supporting it, the platform shows no sign of let-up. Android was the top OS in the U.S., with 12.1 million units shipped. But its growth in Asia shows why Android has been such a fast riser: Android shipments in Japan topped 1.4 million over the past year, while Android growth in China, particularly from handsets by Samsung and Huawei, has chipped away Nokia’s market share there from 76 percent down to 56 percent. With cheap Android phones expected to flood the market, it will only drive more units of Android phones. That may be why Nokia’s CEO Stephen Elop is considering a new strategy that may mean using Android or possibly Windows Phone 7 on upcoming phones, something my colleague Kevin suggested back in July of last year.

All the focus on operating systems obscures the fact that Nokia still remains the largest manufacturer of smartphones. IDC also confirms that Nokia remains the largest cell phone manufacturer overall, with a 30.8 percent market share in the fourth quarter. But as smartphones account for a larger piece of the cell phone pie, manufacturers using Android appear to be benefiting. IDC said Samsung grew its shipments by 17.3 percent in the fourth quarter while low-cost Chinese manufacturer ZTE, which sells cheap Android phones in its lineup, grew shipments by 76.8 percent. ZTE also jumped into the world’s top five manufacturers, dropping RIM out of the top five.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub. req’d):