Apple's iOS edges Android in Q4, takes top smartphone OS spot in the US

Apple also chipped away at Android's international market share

Strong iPhone 6 sales helped Apple iOS's reclaim the top smartphone OS spot in the U.S. in the fourth quarter, after ceding the title to Android two years ago.

However, Apple's market share edge was incredibly thin: 0.1 percent, according to data from research firm Kantar Worldpanel shows. Apple's mobile OS made up 47.7 percent of U.S. smartphone sales during 2014's fourth quarter, beating Android's 47.6 percent market share. It's the first time since 2012's fourth quarter that Android drops to second place in the U.S.

Still, the victory is important for Apple. Android appears on more smartphones than iOS but Apple was still able to beat the Google OS with the relatively few iPhone models it sells.

The iPhone 6, which launched in September, deserves most of the credit for Apple's fourth-quarter success. It was the best-selling smartphone in the U.S. during the fourth quarter, which included the holiday shopping season, Kantar said.

But having a range of iPhone models at different prices also helped Apple, said Carolina Milanesi, Kantar's chief of research, in an email interview. The larger iPhone 6 Plus appeals to people who want a bigger screen and the older, lower-priced iPhone models let Apple compete against mid-tier and high-end Android phones.

"Consumers that have been waiting for larger screens have their answer and consumers who might have wanted to get an iPhone in the past but could not afford it can opt for products that are one year old," she said.

Smartphones still need a hip element to attract buyers and recently launched devices running Android lack that factor, Milanesi said. Sales of the Samsung Galaxy 5, the company's iPhone competitor, have been tepid and HTC, which runs Android on its flagship One M8 phone, has suffered from a weakened brand.

"There is no question that in the Android lineup we have been missing a strong attention-grabbing device," she said.

Samsung is reportedly preparing to unveil the Galaxy 6 at Mobile World Congress next month, a move that may spark consumer interest.

The iPhone, however, managed to grab a lot of people's attention during the final three months of 2014. Apple sold a record 74.5 million iPhones during its fourth quarter, the company said last week. That figure includes iPhone 6 and iPhone 5 sales.

Apple chipped away at Android internationally, according to Kantar. In Europe, Android share dropped by 3.8 percentage points in 2014 to 66.1 percent while Apple's rose by 6.2 percentage points to 24.1 percent. Italy was the only European country where Android's market share grew last year. Apple also advanced in China, increasing its market share to 21.5 percent in 2014's fourth quarter from 19 percent in year-ago quarter.

Fred O'Connor writes about IT careers and health IT for The IDG News Service. Follow Fred on Twitter at @fredjoconnor. Fred's e-mail address is fred_o'connor@idg.com

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