2012: The year iPhone reclaims its title from Android

The past few days have seen several reports of iOS’s recent inroads into Android’s mobile dominance. Neilsen reported that October’s iPhone 4S launch had an “enormous impact” on smartphone sales, boosting Apple’s share among new buyers by nearly 20 percent and putting its hardware neck and neck with Android’s in December. Verizon Wireless posted similarly encouraging numbers, revealing today that they’ve sold 4.2 million iPhones in the fourth quarter, a staggering figure that accounts for more than half of the 7.7 million smartphones they moved in that same period. And Apple, not one to be upstaged, trumpeted sales of 37 million iPhones in the latest quarter, a 128 percent year-over-year improvement.

So what gives? How is a single phone holding its own against dozens of Android alternatives, not to mention RIM’s BlackBerry lineup? And its not just keeping pace — it’s outselling its plentiful rivals, in some cases. That’s impressive, but not entirely unexpected. At least, not to me.

It boils down to this, in my mind: Most American smartphone shoppers want an iPhone. When those folks walk into a store prepared to fork over potentially hundreds of dollars, it never occurs to them to browse that store’s smartphone inventory. Their minds are made up, their hearts set on an iPhone. But why is Apple only now making up ground? you’ll say. After all, if most would prefer an iPhone, why is Apple playing catch up? Simple: It wasn’t available to a majority of smartphone shoppers until recently, forcing them to snatch up alternatives.

Not that they couldn’t spring for Apple’s latest phone before now. But reaching for one meant abandoning carriers that didn’t cater to the iPhone crowd — a costly, contract-breaking move that could also compromise prized service.

That changed only recently. So recently, in fact, that Sprint debuted the iPhone in 4S guise, and Verizon just marked the first iPhone launch of its year-old Apple relationship with that same model (the iPhone 4 was launched on Verizon nearly 6 months after it was available on AT&T).

Now, I’m not suggesting we stick a fork in Android, nor do I think they’re without a market or appeal. But I think we’re witnessing a redistribution of power on this newly level playing field. Before long, the smartphone race will resemble the iOS-dominated tablet market, where consumers have never been bound by finicky carriers and the iPad has enjoyed ubiquity.

Regardless of how it shakes out, 2012, the first full year that Android and iOS handhelds share shelves at the country’s three leading carriers, will be a defining one for smartphones.

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