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Retail research kingpin the NPD Group is reporting thatAndroid-based phones are now outselling iPhones. Or at least they did last quarter in terms of unit sales in the U.S. according to NPD’s study, which found that RIM’s BlackBerries held 36 percent of the market, phones running Google’s Android had 28 percent, and the iPhone was at 21 percent.

Something like this was inevitable, given that:

  1. Two models of the iPhone (the 3GS and 3G) are doing battle with scads of Android handsets in an array of shapes and sizes;
  2. You can buy an Android phone for a lot less than an iPhone (the original Droid launched in November at the same contract price as an iPhone 3GS-now Amazon has ‘em for twenty bucks);
  3. Three out of four major U.S. wireless carriers still don’t have the iPhone.

It’ll be fascinating to see whether Android’s unit sales edge persists-and grows. (There are new Android models every month, but some iPhone admirers are presumably waiting for the next-gen iPhone which will likely be available in June or July.)

Will Apple feel forced to respond to the Android explosion with price cuts, the introduction of budget-minded new models, or other moves that could steal back marketshare? It’s not a given. Between the iPhone’s healthy pricetag and the walled-garden megamall known as the iTunes Store, Apple is perfectly capable of being the most profitable smartphone company even if it doesn’t sell the most phones.

Here’s what would cause Apple to shift its strategy: Any sign that Android was managing to convert marketshare dominance into Windows-like ecosystemdominance. If a booming market for Android phones resulted in popular apps being available first on Android, or content owners striking Android-only deals, or makers of popular accessories not bothering to support the iPhone, Apple would react but quick.

In 2010, the Android Marketplace’s offerings have improved noticeably in terms of both quantity and quality. So far, though, it’s still near the start of a very long game of catch-up with the iPhone. And if there are any signs that the iPhone ecosystem is suffering, I can’t see them.

Any predictions on where things will be, say, one year from now?

(UPDATE: You can buy 9900 AT&T Backflips for the price of one iPhone 3G-here’s a helpful infographic.)

Source: PCWorld