Android's tablet splash: The jury is still out

Android's fourth quarter explosive growth and Apple's marketshare dip makes for a good headline - but what do the numbers really mean?
Written by Sam Diaz, Inactive

Sometimes, a number looks so good in a headline that the fine print behind that number can get lost in the story itself.

Case in point: A report this morning by Strategy Analytics put the spotlight on Android-based tablets in a way that highlighted amazing growth and prompted bloggers to send out a "Watch Out" warning to Apple and its iPad. After all, with Android seeing 2,000 percent growth and a "skyrocketing" market share from 2.3 percent in the last quarter to 21.6 percent in the fourth quarter, Apple must be shaking in its boots, right?

Maybe not.

Certainly, Apple should be watching the growth of Android, which could get a boost when Google releases details of its latest version of the OS - called Honeycomb - at an event later this week. That OS will power the Motorola Xoom tablet, a darling of CES that is expected to become available in the next month or so. (Gallery)

But, the report's fourth quarter numbers - at least the way they're being portrayed - just don't settle well with me. Here's why:

  • The report lists "shipments" of these products, not "sales." Maybe I'm splitting hairs here but I can't help but wonder how many of those Android tablets - notably the Samsung Galaxy Tab - were actually sold to end users? We know from Apple's fourth quarter earnings call earlier this month that the company "sold" 7.3 million iPads.
  • The research firm lists the same number - 7.3 million - as shipments for Apple. For Android, it reports 2.1 million shipments, up from 100,000 shipments in the third quarter. There's your 2,000 percent gain.
  • Marketshare matters. For Apple, that number comes in at more than 75 percent for the fourth quarter and more than 84 percent for the year. Android's nearly 22 percent in the fourth quarter equates to just over 13 percent for the year.
  • In that same "Marketshare matters" camp, it's worth noting that Apple lost share from the third quarter to the fourth quarter, dipping from more than 95 percent to just over 75 percent. But what does that really say? When you're pretty much the only player in one quarter, it's a gimme that you're going to have nearly 100 percent of the marketshare. When one player comes in and sees any sort of traction, the market leader will certainly take a hit. The entire global market only saw shipments of 10 million units for the quarter - and Apple sold 7.3 million of them.

At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is that the tablet market is heating up - and I have no beef with the overall forecasts for 2011. Android will make some strong gains this year and Apple's momentum will continue to flourish - even if it loses some market share to Android.

Reports like the one that Strategy Analytics put out are important - with the right caveats. The report offers some insight into what's happening in the competitive market. As expected, Google gained some ground but Apple is still dominating. But that's where the story should end.

It's certainly not the kind of headline that sends sends a spark through the Google vs. Apple battlefield, is it?

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