The third generation iPad, featuring a 2048 x 1536-pixel Retina display and four processor cores, has once again raised the bar for Android competitors. According to a May 3 IDC report on first-quarter global tablet sales, Apple's latest iPad won back much of Android's recent tablet gains, which had swollen with the help of Amazon's Kindle Fire. Apple's iOS rebounded from a 4Q low of 55 percent market share back up to 68 percent, estimates IDC.
Yet Apple's recovery, boosted by the new iPad and a discounted iPad 2, may well be temporary, suggests IDC. "Although total Android shipments were down sharply in 1Q12, companies such as Samsung and Lenovo are beginning to gain traction in the market with their latest generation of Android products," states the research firm. "IDC expects the segment to rebound quickly as other vendors introduce new products in the second quarter and beyond."
Quad-core Android 4.0 tablets have just begun to ship, and Android OEMs like Acer and Samsung, which also manufactures the iPad's Retina display, are developing screens with comparable resolutions. By the time the next iPad arrives, several Android tablets should best the current model on features -- and with Android 4.0, they could arguably surpass it on user experience.
That said, no single high-end model will come close to outselling the iPad. Instead, low-end tablets will drive Android to overtake Apple's iOS within a few years, according to IDC. Promising contenders include a rumored Google-branded tablet from Asus intended to compete with the $199 Fire, as well as a larger version of the Fire, both of which will force tablet pricing lower, says IDC. In short, Android will win the tablet market the same way it won the smartphone market: with a flood of products with low prices and plenty of options on size and features.
IDC: Android tablets to overtake iPad by 2015
Last year, Android phones eclipsed the global market share of Apple's iPhone, and have now grown to a cumulative 51 percent of U.S. subscribers, compared to the iPhone's 30.7 percent, according to ComScore. The tablet market, however, has proven more challenging, in part due to flaws with Android 3.0. The vastly improved Android 4.0 should not only go far in helping Android compete on the high end, but will appear on many affordable tablets as well.
Despite Android's first-quarter downturn, IDC declined to modify its March projections on the global tablet market, in which it predicted that Android will overtake iOS by 2015, and advance to a roughly 50 percent share in 2016.
In an April report, Gartner projected a similar, but less spectacular trajectory. Gartner sees Android tablets growing from about half of iOS' share in 2012 -- 31.9 percent of total -- to 37 percent of total in 2016, compared to iOS' 45 percent. In 2016, the next closest competitor -- Windows 8 -- will trail at 12 percent, predicts Gartner. (IDC and others are much less bullish on Microsoft's prospects.)
Low-end options key to surge
By all accounts, the $199 Kindle Fire drove the fourth quarter Android surge, and continues to dominate. An April 26 report from ComScore estimates the Fire advanced to 54.4 percent of the Android market by the end of February. Yet, the Fire, which runs a highly modified version of Android 2.3, isn't alone in finding success on the low end. According to IDC, Pandigital and Barnes & Noble' Nook tablets have also succeeded with affordable Android slates.
Since Apple has yet to hint at an "iPad Jr." -- and Microsoft's OEMs will focus on the enterprise market -- Android vendors have the growing low- and mid-range markets to themselves. In March, ABI Research projected that sub-$400 tablets will rise to 60 percent of the market by 2016, driven by increasing sales to China and India.
Even if a scaled-down iPad arrives, the sheer volume and variety of Android options will be formidable. In the end, the more open platform will win, just as it has in smartphones and other embedded devices.