Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android and Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS practically put the mobile market in a head lock in 2011, combining for 82 percent market share, according to NPD Group.
The market research firm said Android commanded 53 percent U.S. smartphone share, compared to 29 percent for the iPhone. Android started the year at approximately 30 percent market share, with Apple wielding around 20 percent.
With a one-two punch like that, it begs the question: can Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) BlackBerry and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone stop losing market share and shake free from the sales doldrums?
It's a fair question. RIM is struggling worse than Palm did before it sold out to HP. Microsoft partners Samsung and HTC just aren't selling many Windows Phone handsets.
Conversely, Google just launched its Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system, while Apple launched iOS 5 to power its new iPhone 4S device. Both platforms are significant upgrades over previous versions.
Compare those new OS builds to the underwhelming BlackBerry OS 7 and the Windows Phone Mango update, which, while praised by critics, is not getting developer momentum. The odds get steeper for RIM and Microsoft.
Noting that innovation velocity is "extremely high between Apple and Google," Global Equities Research analyst Trip Chowdry posited that there "may not even be a third player" in the smartphone market next year.
"[Google and Apple] are creating products in the market, which are probably a generation ahead of both RIM and Microsoft," wrote Chowdry in a December research note. "Competitive rivalry between Apple and Google in [the] mobile space is probably driving RIM and Microsoft out of the mobile market. Every indication as of now tells us that probably 95 percent of smartphone market may be shared between Apple and Google."
That 95 percent share figure in the United States seems a bit high to us, especially when NPD, comScore, Gartner, IDC Nielsen and others on average have RIM hovering around 10 percent to 17 percent share, with Windows Phone at 1 to 2 percent.
But Chowdry's point that Android and iOS are eating the industry alive is well taken, even by some other analysts. IDC analyst Al Hilwa acknowledged that the idea that Google and Apple have hijacked the smartphone market in the United States is "a scenario that has to receive some consideration."
iOS and Android are bracketing the market, covering all of the necessary bases for consumers. iOS is capturing the high-end, brand-conscious crowd, while Android is luring a huge swath of consumers with varying price points and form factor choices, Hilwa said.
Of course, others would say one can never have enough choices in the market; the two-horse race is hardly ideal for carriers and OEMs. One thing to remember is that Android's continued lead is shrouded in uncertainty thanks to the ongoing intellectual property litigation and fragmentation concerns the platform faces.
A third ecosystem can take advantage of these weaknesses if it is able to make the right investments quickly enough, Hilwa told eWEEK, adding Microsoft is in the best position to harness its PC ecosystem and converge it with the mobile world. He is looking for Microsoft to open up its forthcoming Windows 8 architecture and embrace application developers from the Web and C/C++ worlds.
Still, Hilwa acknowledged: "I think 2012 will shape up to be a critical year for whether we end up with a two-, three- or four-platform market in mobile."