US Phone Buyers Dump Dumb, Get Smart

Nielsen’s latest statistics on smartphone sales in the U.S. are more than a little eye-catching. They suggest that an important tipping point is on the horizon: The majority of mobile phone users will soon own smartphones, as opposed to feature phones.

The majority of cellphone users still own feature phones, Nielsen says, based on its May survey of mobile consumers in the U.S.

“The penetration of smartphones is not at the 50 percent mark,” Don Kellogg, senior manager of research and insight for Nielsen, told the E-Commerce Times. Thirty-eight percent now own smartphones.

However, what is telling is that 55 percent of those who purchased a new handset in the past three months reported buying a smartphone instead of a feature phone — up from 34 percent just a year ago.

“When the majority of people getting a new phone are choosing a smartphone, it is clearly an inflection point,” Kellogg said.

Apple Surge

Android remains the most popular smartphone operating system, with 38 percent of smartphone consumers owning Android devices. The platform also leads among those who recently purchased a new smartphone.

However, it is Apple’s iPhone that has shown the most growth in recent months, according to Nielsen.

Specifically, 17 percent of new handset purchases were iPhones, compared with 10 percent in the previous three-month period. Android’s share of smartphone sales, at 27 percent, did not change much from the previous poll to the most recent one.

The iPhone’s growth can be attributed to its becoming available on Verizon Wireless, noted Kellogg. “Being offered on carrier with more than 100 million subscribers helped in terms of growing market share. Certainly, it doesn’t hurt.”

The fact that Android’s share didn’t move in this survey isn’t remarkable, in Kellogg’s view, since it is only a snapshot of a certain time period.

“These things are cyclical. When a new product or offering comes to market, the numbers will move again,” he predicted.

Other vendors making an appearance in the research note are Research In Motion, which captured 6 percent share of sales reported in the poll, down from 11 percent. Its BlackBerry handsets claim 21 percent of the market.

Windows Mobile, in fourth place, holds a 9 percent share of the U.S. smartphone market. That does not include Windows Phone 7, which claims about 1 percent of the market.

Some Room for Doubt

These surveys are not objective snapshots of a market — they are snapshots of what consumers say they have done, Azita Arvani of the Arvani Group told the E-Commerce Times. In short, Nielsen’s ratings are based on what consumers report they have purchased — not actual retail sales.

For that reason, she is not ready to call it a day for Android just yet.

A comparison between Nielsen’s figures for Feb-Apr 2011 and Mar-May 2011 shows that both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android market shares jumped a couple of percentage points.

“In particular, according to Nielson, iOS has gone from 26 percent to 27 percent and Android from 36 percent to 38 percent during that period. That seems to have come at the expense of RIM BlackBerry losing share from 23 percent to 21 percent during the same period.”

So, no, Arvani said, “I cannot reach the conclusion that ‘Apple is now driving smartphone growth.'”

Whither Windows?

What catches her attention from these numbers is the Windows Mobile market share, which seemingly held steady during the Feb-Apr 11 and Mar-May 11 periods.

“This is in contrast to Windows Phone 7 number remaining flat at 1 percent,” she pointed out. “Given the end-of-life status of Windows Mobile, the maintenance of their share is impressive.”

Or, she added, it could be that the consumers are reporting their Windows Phone 7 purchases in the Windows Mobile bucket.

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