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Android has half of U.S. market, but for how long?

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Android has had a remarkable run. Coming to market after Apple (AAPL) got a big head start with the iPhone, the mobile operating system from Google (GOOG) has become the leading choice on consumer devices. In the U.S., Android was on half of all smartphones from March through May 2012, according to comScore. Apple's iOS operating system, which runs the iPhone, had 31.9 percent market share.

But that's today. What will happen tomorrow? Apple continues the legal patent advance against Android with a pair of court victories. And its main target is Samsung, which just happens to be the current foundation for Android's smashing success. Even though it prevailed against Oracle, Google is hardly out of the woods yet, and that could open a door for Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows Phone.

The top smartphone platforms graph from comScore sets up half the current state of U.S. smartphone sales:

RIM (RIMM) is weak and falling. The company's current strategic and operational mess is unlikely to improve, and market share will probably keep falling. Microsoft has a tiny portion of the market. Symbian is on the way out.

The other half of the state of U.S. smartphone sales comes from the data on the market share of handset vendors (OEMs, or original equipment manufacturers):

Between Apple and the number one spot are two vendors, Samsung and LG, which have done well with Android. And that's how we end up in court, as Apple and others have attacked Google indirectly through patent infringement lawsuits targeting its hardware partners. Last week, a judge granted a preliminary injunction against Samsung's Galaxy Nexus phone, a big seller, after also granting a preliminary injunction against the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet.

Preliminary injunctions granted before a trial starts are unusual, so getting two of them is significant. Keeping these products out of the U.S. market could be enough to knock Samsung out of the top spot and give Apple a chance to pick up additional customers.

Things will get worse

And the contention will be ongoing. As patent blogger Florian Mueller points out on his Foss Patents blog, most of the patent action is still outstanding, with new patents (and the possibilities of additional suits) continuing to come into being. Courts in different parts of the world have collectively found that Android has already infringed 11 different patents.

The Android fans/Apple haters I've read dismiss the chance that Google's operating system could be pushed out of the market. But that's already happening in a practical sense, if the biggest Android-based mobile hardware vendor, Samsung, faces its top products being excluded from U.S. store shelves.

Now for the more speculative part: Should Apple, Microsoft, and the like continue their success in tripping those who use Android, what choice will hardware vendors have? Eventually, they have to manage the risk of designing and making products that will be excluded from the market.

What are their choices? Symbian is long past its sell date. Buy RIM? Perhaps. But more likely they'd look at using Microsoft Windows Phone as an available alternative that stands at least some chance in the market. And that's probably what Microsoft has been angling for all along.

Image: Google, editing by Erik Sherman

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