roaring-lionBlackBerry and Microsoft’s battle for the smartphone market’s bronze could be a closer contest than anyone thought. Analysts at Barclays, Bernstein, and Jefferies & Co all report strong demand for the company’s Z10 smartphone in the UK, with pre-orders at major carriers and retailers sold out just a week after the phone’s announcement. A note from Barclays’ Jeff Kvaal is especially interesting, as he says that the Z10 is “off to a better start than the Lumia 920,” Nokia’s flagship Windows Phone device.

That doesn’t mean Nokia is left without a reason to celebrate, however. The company reported that Lumia sales (which include both the 920 and the Lumia 820, a mid-range device) rose during Q4 2012, with 4.4 million devices sold. Some 700,000 of those devices were sold in the US, a 40 percent increase over the previous quarter and a full 100,000 more than the previous 600,000 device high of Q2 2012. Neither Nokia nor the Lumia are storming the US market, but they are starting to pick up some speed.

Those aren’t earth-shattering numbers, and saying that the Z10 is “off to a better start than the Lumia 920″ might be damning the handset with faint praise, but it might also mean that the battle for third place could be more important than the fight for first or second. (One could argue about whether Apple and Google are playing the same game with iOS or Android, respectively, but that horse has been beaten, resuscitated, and had a piñata made in its likeness already.)

BlackBerry and Microsoft have taken a different approach with BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone. BlackBerry is staying true to the Apple model of producing both the hardware and the software for any given device, while Microsoft is doing what it’s always done — and what Android does — and licensed Windows Phone to manufacturers. The competition between the two models allows for an interesting 2013 in a few ways:

We get to watch the “end-to-end” vs. “I want to be on all of the devices” play out on a smaller scale. The battle between “open” and “closed” operating systems tends to devolve into feature fights and censorship issues when the Android and iOS fans meet in the comments section. BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone are (mostly) clean slates that few people (comparatively) have had a chance to judge for themselves. Watching both operating systems grow could allow for a better idea of what consumers care about in a smartphone OS.

We get to see who switches product philosophies first. Neither BlackBerry nor Microsoft seem to be particularly committed to their product philosophies. BlackBerry is rumored to be selling its hardware division to focus on becoming a true platform play at the same time that Microsoft is increasing its hardware presence and is rumored to have developed a “Surface phone” to exert more control over the Windows Phone user experience.

We can watch as other, smaller companies rush to take third place. BlackBerry and Microsoft aren’t just competing with each other for third place. Other companies, like Canonical and its Ubuntu for phones operating system, Mozilla and FirefoxOS, Jolla and Sailfish, and even Samsung with the open-source Tizen operating system are or could be fighting for the same spot.

Both BlackBerry and Microsoft are fighting not to catch up to iOS or Android — the odds of that happening this year seem infinitesimally small — but to outrun each other and all of those competitors. Watching them race to the top is like watching two old, once-proud lions try to outrun a pack of hungry hyenas. (No talking birds, meerkats, warthogs, or baboons this time. Sorry, guys.)