For the first time ever, shipments of Android smartphones outpaced all of the competition worldwide in the fourth quarter of 2010, including longtime champion Nokia, according to the research company Canalys.

The last quarter marks a milestone for Google’s mobile OS. Android was bound to become king eventually — it’s free, scalable across all sorts of devices, and its growth has been tremendous — but it’s certainly a surprise to see it gain the top smartphone spot so soon.

According to Canalys, Android smartphone shipments reached 32.9 million in the last quarter, while Nokia was slightly behind with 31 million. That puts Android with about 33 percent of total global shipments — a huge jump from last year, when it only made up for around 8.7 percent of smartphone shipments. The number of Android shipments grew a whopping 615 percent from the 4.7 million last year.

Nokia, meanwhile, dropped around 14 points from its dominating position last year to 30.6 percent of total shipments, even though it managed to ship around 7 million more smartphones. So Nokia is still managing to increase its shipment numbers — it just can’t keep up with the rapidly accelerated pace of the smartphone market. Canalys says that the global smartphone market grew 89 percent in 2010 to 101.2 million units shipped.

Apple held third place in the last quarter with 16 percent of smartphone shipments, while RIM lagged slightly behind with 14.4 percent.

For what it’s worth, Nokia remains the leading global smartphone vendor with 28 percent of the market. Since Android phones are available from many other manufacturers, it will be difficult for any one of them to topple Nokia. Still, the company faces competition from Apple — especially now that the Verizon iPhone is a reality.

Canalys says that Android phones from LG, Samsung, HTC and Acer drove the platform’s growth in 2010. HTC and Samsung together accounted for around 45 percent of Android shipments.

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