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iPhone behind only Nokia and RIM in global smartphone share

Apple maintained the third place position in global unit sales of smartphones, but was passed up by Microsoft's Windows Mobile to become the fourth largest smartphone vendor in terms of operating system platforms as it continues to lead the industry in year over year growth.

Market research firm Gartner released a quarterly report this morning that warned worldwide smartphone sales had slowed to the industry's lowest growth rate ever, just 3.7 percent, in the last quarter of 2008.

"After a strong third quarter with new product introductions, sequential growth slowed down again in the fourth quarter as fewer compelling new products and the worsened economic climate continued to make data plans associated with smartphones out of reach for most consumers," said Gartner research director Roberta Cozza. "In general in 2008, the focus from vendors and operators on increasing their smartphone portfolios remained very strong. Samsung, RIM, HTC and Apple saw their volumes and share increase during 2008, thanks to their ability to offer compelling device experiences and touch interfaces."

Smartphone device share

In terms of units sold by manufacturer, Nokia still clings to its shrinking lead among smartphones; the company's quarterly change of -16.8 percent was the most severe market share retraction of any single handset maker, however.

Apple stands in a strong third place behind Nokia and second place RIM after achieving 111.6 percent year-over-year growth as it brought the iPhone 3G into new markets internationally. Samsung entered the top five vendors for the first time.

"Apple's initial sell-through dropped significantly as sales fell during the fourth quarter," Gartner said. "Nevertheless, Apple maintained its third position in the global rankings."

Worldwide Smartphone Sales to End Users by Vendor, 4Q08 (Thousands of Units)

Smartphones by OS share

In the summer (third) quarter of last year, at the launch of the iPhone 3G, Apple took a 12.9 percent share of the worldwide market for smartphones, moving the iPhone's OS ahead of the global shipments of all smartphones based on Microsoft's Windows Mobile by 1.8 percentage points. In the fourth quarter, the iPhone 3G slipped back down to fourth place, behind the sum of all manufacturers using Windows Mobile, with 10.7 percent share of all smartphones. However, Apple has more than doubled its previous fourth-quarter share from 2007 of 5.2 percent.

Gartner Q4 2008 worldwide sales by OS
Worldwide Smartphone Sales to End Users by Operating System, 4Q08 (Thousands of Units)

Windows Mobile, which Gartner said was helped by the Samsung Omnia and touchscreen products from HTC, took back the third-place ranking with a 12.4 percent share. Symbian, which lost 21.6 percent year-over-year, remains in first place ahead of Research In Motion.

Moving away from individual quarters to look at the entire year, Apple has enjoyed a whopping 245.7 percent growth when comparing 2008 against 2007, easily trouncing its closest competitor RIM (96.7 percent).

Gartner 2008 worldwide sales by OS
Worldwide Smartphone Sales to End Users by Operating System, 2008 (Thousands of Units)

As rumors swirl about more flexible plan pricing from Apple's US partner AT&T, a possible iPhone deal in China and other nations, and the strong possibility of a new model arriving in June, 2009 could be another strong year for the iPhone.

Troubled financial markets and the shrinking growth in smartphones sales in general may pose tough obstacles to overcome, but the established brand reputation of the iPhone, combined with its leading mobile app store, new platform developments in the works, and the third iPhone release are likely to keep the company afloat as other manufacturers struggle to differentiate themselves, much as Apple's Mac sales are outperforming the PC market as a whole.