Apple’s iOS-based iPad still rules the tablet market but not for want of trying by competitors like Google, Research in Motion, Motorola, Samsung, and, once-upon-a-time, Hewlett-Packard. But figuring out just how broad Apple’s lead in the market is can be difficult.
Apple itself is up front about its iPad and iPad 2 sales figuresâ€”for example, the company says it sold 9.25 million iPads in its fiscal third quarter, according to its most recent earnings report. It’s not nearly as easy to put a number on the amount of non-iOS tablets that have been sold in that or any other quarter.
That’s because the other major tablet makers out there don’t generally issue sales figures, but rather talk about shipment numbers. And when they talk about sales numbers, those numbers aren’t very pretty. Apple essentially sells every tablet it makes to an end user, but to try to match that perfect return rate, companies like HP and RIM have had to offer steep discounts on their tablets to unload inventory that wasn’t selling at the original price.
Or take Android-based tablets. Google supplies the operating system for those devices, but companies like Samsung, Asus, Acer, Motorola, and Amazon build the hardware. You’d have to mix and match figures often buried deep in financial statements from several different companies just to get an idea of how many Android tablets are out in the wild and not just sitting on a pallet in some warehouse.
Adding up the Android Numbers
Now SlashGear has offered up a seemingly simpler way to get that number and it turns out that there are roughly 3.4 million Android tablets that have been sold to end users up to this point.
Except that’s not precisely trueâ€”there are certainly more, but maybe not all that many. What SlashGear does to get its 3.4 million figure (which is dwarfed by the 30 million or so iPads that Apple had sold as of this past summer, by the way) is to reconcile Google CEO Larry Page’s recent statement that 190 million Android devices have been activated in total with Google’s latest platform version stats, which put the percentage of devices accessing the Android Market in the past two weeks while running Android Honeycomb 3.0, 3.1, or 3.2 at 1.8 percent.
And voila! You arrive at the number 3.4 million. And the nice thing about that number is that it points to tablets that are actively accessing the Android Market and thus in the hands of usersâ€”though we suppose there could be some small amount of Android tablets out there that access Google’s app portal as floor models in various retail stores or otherwise are live devices without being sold.
Slash Gear does point out a couple of reasons why the 3.4 million figure is almost certainly a low-ball guess. For one thing, Honeycomb isn’t the only version of Android being used to run tablets. It’s just the only one built exclusively for tablets, thus making it possible to parse out as representing tablets specifically via Google’s platform version stats.
Samsung’s first Galaxy Tab runs Android 2.2 Froyo or 2.3 Gingerbread, for example. Since those versions of Android are also used on smartphones, it’s tough to draw out the tablets running Froyo or Gingerbread versus smartphones running those flavors of Android from Google’s platform version stats.
Amazon’s upcoming Kindle Fire also runs a heavily modified version of Gingerbread. While the Kindle Fire won’t actually ship until Nov. 15, it’s been reported that more than 250,000 of the $199 tablets had been purchased in just the first five days after Amazon made them available for pre-order. If that level of demand keeps up, the number of Android tablets sold could be doubled before the year is outâ€”or better, with the holiday season coming up.
Another problem with just relying on Google’s own Android version stats is that not all Android Honeycomb tablets are Google certified, as Slash Gear points out. Some use third-party app stores, such as Amazon’s and so wouldn’t be counted in Google’s own statistics.
Who’s Challenging Apple?
Even so, the north of 3.4 million number of Android-based tablets sold, even when added on to smaller but not insignificant sales of tablets running RIM’s QNX, HP’s webOS, MeeGo, and other operating systems, still comes up far short of Apple’s iPad sales figures.
Gartner has projected worldwide sales of tablets to end users for all of 2011 in the neighborhood of 64 million units. The research firm reckons iPads running Apple’s iOS will account for about 47 million of those unit sales or 73.4 percent of the market, sales of tablets running Android will number 11 million, RIM’s QNX-based BlackBerry PlayBook will account for 3 million sales, HP’s discontinued webOS-based TouchPad for 2 million, and devices running MeeGo and other OSes for about 850,000 more unit sales.
Right now, those numbers seem overly optimistic for all the companies namedâ€”yes, Apple includedâ€”even with the holidays coming up and even adding the highly anticipated entry of Amazon’s Kindle Fire to the mix.
RIM in particular seems like it will be hard-pressed to get to even half of the sales Gartner is projected for QNX tablets, though the company is reportedly set to release a much-needed update to its OS next week that could attract more business for its PlayBook. HP, meanwhile, is just clearing out inventory and it’s tough to see how it sells 2 million units of a tablet it won’t even be making before the year is out.
Here are a couple of loose conclusions based on all of the above information. First, the tablet market just isn’t as big or growing as fast as many thought it would be at this point (though we will watch Amazon’s Kindle Fire closely and also look forward to Microsoft’s release of a tablet-friendly Windows 8 OS next year). Second, Android is making slow-but-steady inroads into an iOS-dominated tablet market, perhaps resembling the way Google and its partners began to chip away at Apple’s iPhone market share for a few years before finally surpassing it.
Gartner predicts that Apple’s share of the global tablet market won’t fall below 50 percent until sometime in 2014, though the iPad-maker would still be the single biggest player in that market through at least 2015, according to the research firm.
Maybe. But even if the non-iOS tablet numbers look fairly fragile compared to Apple’s robust iPad figures right now, those numbers aren’t merely a “rounding error” when compared with Apple’s books, as some of the Cupertino company’s more fanatical followers like to gloat.
And it does seem possible that the right combination of tablet offerings from Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and other players could turn up the heat on Apple sooner than a lot of people think.