It’s no fluke – iPhone closes the gap on Android in U.S.

IOS’ (s aapl) year end surge has helped close the gap on Android (s goog) in the U.S., with December sales hitting 44.5 percent of all smartphones, just behind Android at 46.9 percent, according to new data from Nielsen. The numbers bolster a similar report from NPD, which announced last week that the iPhone had pulled within four percentage points of Android in October and November.

Among all smartphone users, Android still reigns supreme, with 46.3 percent of the market, compared to 30 percent for iOS.  Among recent acquirers over the last three months, Android commands an even bigger share with 51.7 percent of the market, compared to 37 percent for iOS. But iOS took a big leap in the final quarter of 2011, with its share moving from 25.1 percent in October to 44.5 percent by December, eating into Android’s, which fell from 61.6 percent to 46.9 percent over the same period.
As any iOS fan will tell, Apple is more concerned with profits over marketshare. But the new data shows that Apple’s mobile operating system has made up some serious ground on Android in the smartphone market, particularly in December. Spurred on by the big release of the iPhone 4S on the three biggest carriers in the U.S., Apple showed it’s capable of competing even more closely with Android when it has wider distribution.

Android will likely regain some momentum in the U.S. as the iPhone line-up ages and more Android 4.0 devices hit the market. Demand for Android device might have slowed in anticipation of the next generation Ice Cream Sandwich devices, the first of which, the Galaxy Nexus on Verizon, didn’t appear until mid-December. We’ll have to see if this is just a temporary surge.
But this again confirms that for now, the smartphone race is still very much a two-horse competition. Research in Motion (s rimm) continues to give up more ground and only has 14.9 percent of the entire smartphone market, with just 6 percent of purchases within the last three months. That has to be concerning for RIM, which put out a new line-up of BlackBerry 7 devices in the fall. It has to hope those phones can keep sales moving until new BlackBerry 10 devices arrive in the second half of this year.
Overall, smartphone penetration hit 46 percent in the fourth quarter with 60 percent of recent acquirers buying smartphones. It won’t be long before more than half of all phones in the U.S. are smartphones.

Going back to the iOS vs. Android data, it’s still pretty amazing that Apple is competing so well with a limited line-up of devices against an army of Android devices. Now that Apple is cranking on Verizon (s vz)(s vod) and has Sprint (s s) in the fold, it’s available to the vast majority of consumers. Getting a T-Mobile iPhone, which is actually harder than it sounds, could level the playing field even more, though the effect would be more modest.
Apple is obviously selling a lot of iPhone 4Ses, but Nielsen said that those devices consisted of 57 percent of purchases by new iPhone users. So 43 percent of sales are going to older devices, which is still really impressive. People are willing to buy a phone a year or two old at a discount rather than a new device from a competitor. As NPD pointed out, the iPhone 4S, 4 and 3GS were the top-selling devices in October and November, beating out the Galaxy S II and other Android devices. This is another good sign for Apple as it prepares to report quarterly earnings next week. This battle is far from over, but as the numbers show, Apple may not just have to chase profits. It can take a bigger share of the smartphone market when it puts all the pieces together.