Why Worldwide Smartphone Sales Figures Matter to You

Gartner today reported its worldwide smartphone share findings and it’s more of the same for those watching the numbers. For months we’ve seen smartphone stalwart platforms like Symbian and Windows Mobile (s msft) lose out to the relative upstarts. Research In Motion’s BlackBerry (s rimm), Apple’s iPhone (s aapl) and Google’s Android (s goog) operating systems all gained ground. Palm’s (s palm) rejuvenation with webOS also grabbed a little piece of the pie, which should continue as Palm partners with new carriers.

There are two aspects difficult to see from the above graph I built from Gartner’s numbers. It can be confusing to see a higher red value because it looks like a platform has grown. In fact, this case shows the decline of a platform as red indicates 2008 market share, while blue is for 2009 share. The other item is the percentage growth or decline for each platform. Here are the actual market share numbers from Gartner, along with the percentage change over the prior year. These numbers clearly show who’s growing, and by how much, as compared to those whose shares are eroding.

The percentages add credence to the newer platforms gaining at the expense of the older ones. But why should you even care about this as a consumer? What do market share numbers have to do with your own personal smartphone purchase?

There are a number of factors, but I think the main one is software. I’ve harped on this point before, but it bears repeating in light of the Gartner numbers. Developers are following the sales figures because the better selling platforms offer a wider audience interested in the apps being developed and sold. Yes, there are other factors as noted in our recent GigaOm Pro Research report on what developers are considering for mobile platforms (subscription required), but this one is key. And the number of apps for a handset — and more importantly, the quality of those titles — can make a particular device more appealing to you.

Let me offer a real-world application of this concept. I own both an iPhone and an Android handset. I’m considering leaving one or the other to reduce my monthly bills. But right now, there are key and unique applications on each platform that the other doesn’t offer. So I’m in a holding pattern because in some cases there isn’t an equally functional and equivalent app on the one platform or the other. A perfect example is my long-time usage of RunKeeper for the iPhone to track my workouts. I haven’t just invested in a software title — I’ve invested in a platform because my data is tabulated on the RunKeeper website. (Note that RunKeeper is working on an Android version of their software.) Could I switch to SportyPal for Android? Sure, but how do I move my training history from one platform to another? My entire decision process is based on the software — much like it was for many Windows users years ago that couldn’t migrate to Mac due to non-equivalent software tool choices. And this just one of several possible examples.

Is your everyday, average consumer limited by the apps on a particular platform? Probably not if they’re moving from a feature phone to a smartphone as many are. After all, these folks don’t yet have experience with the different platforms to see which apps are offered and which are “missing.” But if you’re familiar with smartphones, I think there’s an app constraint that either does or could affect your handset purchase decisions. Thoughts?