Is Apple's iPhone the Chicken or the Egg in Smartphone Growth?

Last Updated Apr 1, 2010 2:03 PM EDT

RIM (RIMM) issued its latest earnings release yesterday, including what has become a predictable growth in Blackberry unit sales. The numbers got me thinking, and I compared RIM unit history to that of the Apple (AAPL) iPhone.

The result? Although Blackberry sales have run ahead of the iPhone for quarter after quarter, the gap between the two is narrowing, and Apple looks as though it will catch RIM within 6 months. But the unit growth of both have so closely paralleled each other that I also began to wonder: Did the iPhone "create" the smartphone market, as many argue, or was part of its success about hitting the market at the very moment when consumers were most receptive?

Look at the growth in smartphone unit sales of both Apple and RIM. Keep in mind that I didn't fill in the names of the quarters because the two companies have fiscal years that are slightly out of phase. Instead, I compared quarters that ended only a month apart:

I also included trend lines for each. Notice is that Apple seems to have significantly closed the gap in unit movement. I think there are a few reasons for this:

  • RIM's focus on corporate-level sales have felt the sting of reduced technology budgets, so the rate of growth of sales isn't increasing.
  • Apple has cannibalized some of RIM's corporate market.
  • A high percentage of RIM's sales are upgrades. (Out of 10.5 million last quarter, RIM netted only 4.9 million new subscribers to its email services.) As a result, RIM doesn't get the incremental number of new users for even stronger growth.
  • Apple is far better at getting press and attention, effectively increasing its marketing.
If things continue this way, it looks as though Apple will overtake RIM within six months.

There is something else to learn from the data. Many people claim Apple's innovative design has been what fueled smartphone market growth. However, even with Apple catching up to RIM over time, both have had close to parallel unit sales growth. That suggests to me that neither RIM not Apple "made" the market so much as benefited from a period in which consumers finally decided that they wanted smartphones. If Apple had really fueled the market, I don't think RIM would have kept pace.

This would partly explain why Google (GOOG) Android has had such a quick expansion in use compared to the iPhone. Certainly Google gets help from having multiple handset vendors pushing Android, while RIM and Apple are both limited to what they can sell themselves. However, maybe a good chunk of Google's success happened because in entered a more mature market than either RIM or Apple, so market conditions made fast growth possible.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.