He Said, She Said: The Great Android Tablet Debate

A few years back on an episode of a podcast that I used to do I can remember telling one of my co-hosts, an unabashed Apple enthusiast, about the inevitability of Android tablets being one day more popular than his precious iPad. He was adamant that that would never happen, but here we are.

In a similar vein at least one Apple blog is contesting Android’s newly dominant market share in tablets, while elsewhere there is no doubt some number of rabid Android fanboys cheering Apple’s imminent demise.

Let’s see if we can figure out what’s really going on here.

Gartner Tablet Numbers

Here are the numbers from the Gartner report that started all this, courtesy of a piece by TechCrunch on the same subject. It’s not hard to figure out: in 2012 the iPad enjoyed a 52% tablet market share over Android’s 45.8%, which eroded in 2013 to 36.0% while Android rose to 61.9%. So what happened, exactly?

“Low-end, smaller screen” tablets, along with first-time buyers, Gartner says.

In broader strokes I would call it the commoditization of the tablet market. It worked for Windows PCs, it’s worked for Android phones… isn’t it obvious that the same future was in the cards for Android tablets as well?

The same day that the numbers from Gartner were being widely reported along came AppleInsider to debunk them:

The most glaring inconsistency is a disconnect between Gartner’s 70.4 million iPad sales and Apple’s self-reported 74 million unit sales for 2013. From the first quarter — Apple’s second fiscal quarter — to the fourth, the company reported iPad sales of 19.5 million, 14.6 million, 14.1 million and 26 million, respectively. The total: 74.2 million iPads sold during 2013.

Barring the fact that Apple’s sales figures are regulated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Gartner’s results are not off by a trivial amount, but a huge 3.8 million units.

I’m guessing this would be an attempt to discredit Gartner altogether, as 3.8 million additional iPads would still give Android a wide lead over Apple. There’s some additional whinging about units shipped versus units sold, but I think that AppleInsider kind of lost the plot here.

Apple has never been about market share; Apple is about providing premium products to those willing to pay a premium for them. In the years before the iPhone Steve Jobs would always liken the company’s computer products to luxury cars made by BMW — it’s a good analogy, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t apply to Apple’s phone and tablet products too.

In the case of the iPad I suppose it must sting a bit to invent a product category only to lose market dominance to other players. But in the tech world this is nothing new, and I’ve no doubt that there will come a day when Android will itself be usurped by some unforeseen force.

In the meantime I don’t think Gartner’s report makes the iPad any less desirable for those who want it. But I don’t think that a plague of cheap Android tablets are anything to brag about, either.