updated 01:00 am EDT, Thu May 2, 2013
Apple still tops all usage studies, suggesting stronger actual sales
Research firm IDC has posted the results of a questionable study on tablet "market share" that makes the claim -- not supported by sales evidence -- that Android has outgunned Apple in the tablet market, with 56.5 percent share in the first calendar quarter of the year, leaving Apple with barely 40 percent. The study also claims that Asus, not Amazon, is the third-largest tablet vendor with 5.5 percent of the market, having seen 350 percent growth year-over-year. The numbers seem unbelievable -- until one notices that IDC is estimating shipments, not sales.
The fault is not entirely with IDC. Every tablet and smartphone vendor other than Apple only reports shipments, rather than actual end-user sales. This can result in wildly disparate numbers of "shipped" units versus sales. For example, in the first quarter of 2012, Samsung told the press and investors it had shipped 2.3 million Android tablets -- but later told a US Federal District judge that it had actually sold only 1.2 million of those units, half as many as it shipped. IDC's figures also represent present channel inventory, meaning as-yet-unsold units from the previous quarter.
While it is unlikely that all vendors inflate their numbers to the same degree, even assuming that 70 percent of every non-Apple vendor's shipment numbers resulted in actual sales shifts the dominant position back to Apple, even though the IDC report includes every brand of tablet -- including no-name, knock-off and local tablets that proliferate throughout the developing world. According to IDC, the "others" line accounted for more than 30 percent of all tablet shipments.
However, in repeated tablet usage studies -- ad impressions, internet access, app downloading and numerous other methodologies -- a consistent picture of iOS dominance emerges, with the iPad claiming between 60 and 80 percent of measurable tablet activity. NetMarketShare, which measures internet access, says that iOS (tablets and mobile combined) had 59 percent share in April, compared to a combined Android score of 26 percent. Java ME, still in wide use through feature phones, claimed nearly 10 percent usage share, while Symbian, BlackBerry and Windows picked up the scraps at between one and two percent, with the Kindle fork accounting for 0.71 percent share, nearly 10 times that of Windows Mobile.
Though Apple has gradually lost genuine market share over the years as more competitors have arrived, the discrepancy between "share" as defined by shipments and "share" as defined by end-user metrics continues to grow. Reports that uncritically cite the former without making at least a good-faith attempt to determine the latter paint a very distorted picture that can be used to manipulate stock prices, falsely influence buyers and create inaccurate impressions that get wrongly reported as fact.
Still, shipment numbers are not totally without worth. Rises and falls in shipments can be indicative of a seasonal business -- such as Amazon, which only sells Kindle Fire tablets in large quatities around the holidays. In the IDC study, it fell to fourth place due to this seasonality, while Asus' Google-branded Nexus-7 tablet enjoyed increased sales from a general recognition of being one of the top budget contenders to the top-selling iPad mini.
IDC's report also still pointed to Apple as the top individual tablet vendor, with nearly 40 percent of the market. By comparison, Samsung was said to have 17.9 percent share. The study did note that Apple outperformed expectations on calendar Q1 iPad sales, selling 19.5 million units compared to a projected 18.7 million. The sales helped soften the traditional drop in sales following the holiday quarter.