Android Upstages Nokia’s Symbian in Global Smartphone Shipments

In what amounts to a tectonic shift for the global smartphone market, Google’s Android operating system upstaged Nokia’s Symbian for the first time in phone shipments worldwide, according to Canalys, a U.K. research firm.

Android shipments grew by more than sixfold to 32.9 million devices, fueled by sales of Verizon’s Droid line of phones then by Samsung’s and HTC’s devices, over the past year. Nokia also grew, but only by 30 percent to 31.0 million devices worldwide, which was not enough to preserve its lead. The only major platform to decline in shipments was Microsoft, which may reverse this trend this year with Windows Phone 7. Android also posted a strong performance in Asia, with 1.4 million units shipped in Japan. Nokia lost out to other handset makers in China, seeing its market share drop to 56 percent from 76 percent a year ago.

Going into 2011, Android’s momentum will probably continue in the U.S. after 12.1 million shipments last quarter. But the end of Apple’s exclusive agreement with AT&T means Verizon will shift its attention to iOS while there will be new opportunities for Android devices on AT&T.

Confronted with declining market share, Nokia’s chief executive Stephen Elop signaled last week that the company may consider joining a competitive ecosystem. It’s possible the Finnish handset maker might turn to Android or Windows Phone 7 to recapture momentum.

Android’s rapid growth is attracting the eye of thousands of mobile developers, but they still have many questions about how Google’s forthcoming in-app payments system will work, and how they deal with the plethora of devices, versions and now stores. Eric Chu, who leads developer relations for Android, shared a few details with us about the platform’s direction last week and pledged to bring in-app payments within the next two months.