So, do we believe this? And what might it mean?
The tablet market is problematic to analyse because there is an almost complete absence of real data. Apple gives global quarterly unit shipments (indeed, it is by far the most open company in this market), as does RIM (but its numbers are too small to be meaningful) and Motorola used to, but otherwise we’re groping in the dark. Google gives data for the share of the devices connecting to Google Play that have large screens, but this is global, may not be a good sample and is contaminated by poor reporting (for example, at least one Samsung device changed the screen size it reported after a software update). Then there are the industry data firms, which generally base their pitch on aggregating data from the manufacturers, but I rather doubt Amazon is telling them anything. That leaves surveys (if you believe them) and triangulation: in other words, analysis.
We know from the Apple/Samsung patent lawsuit disclosures that Samsung sold just 1.4m Android tablets in the US through June 2012 (excluding the 5″ ‘phablet’ models and some newer models that weren’t subject to the lawsuit, though) where Apple sold 34m – 20m in the last 12 months.
Then, Amazon says the Fire has ’22% share in the USA’, but gives no indication of how it calculated this, or even if it is cumulative or for the most recent quarter (and it has been suggested it comes from… an industry data firm). Meanwhile Nook business unit revenue was $200m in Q2 (including tablets, ebooks and ereaders), so B&N must be selling well under 500k Nook units a quarter. For context, B&N claims 25% or so ebook market share versus over 60% for Amazon.
It looks like there are 30m iPads in the USA (depending on how many you think have been replaced by newer models but not handed on). If one assumes 10m Fires, 2.5m Nooks and 5m ‘Pure Android’ tablets (i.e. excluding the Android-based Fire and Nook), that gets 47.5m total, Amazon to 21%, Apple to 63% and gives Samsung, say, 30% of those pure tablets, all of which is internally consistent. However,the Fire number seems a little high and it also leaves ‘Pure Android’ looking rather small compared to the Pew number. Indeed, the only way to match Pew’s number (while keeping the other numbers the same) is to assume that there are fewer iPads (say 25m) and at least 10m ‘Pure Android’ tablets. I’m not sure I believe that. Incidentally, this would also imply that Samsung has well under 20% share.
Of course, only Google knows the answer to this one, and with customary opacity they’re not saying. But whether Android has 5 or 10m tablets in the USA is relatively uninteresting – the important question is what those tablets really look like and how they’re used. How many are the Nexus 7? How many are cheap generic plastic Chinese units at $150 or below? And with Amazon ramping up its Fire proposition and going down to $160, will people keep buying those generic units or even the Nexus or will they turn to a brand with a clear content proposition? Which devices are likely to sell themselves best as an impulse purchase in a supermarket bay in early December?
I suspect Android tablets face an even bigger self-selection issue than Android phones. Given you can get a great app and content experience from Apple for $400 (or lower if the iPad Mini exists) and a great content experience from Amazon for $160, what sort of person with what sort of use case will buy the pure Android tablet, and will they be the kind of person that would install cool new apps and buy stuff? Or are they buying a ‘web tablet’ at Walgreens? Certainly, UK retailers are ramping up for a ‘cheap Android tablet Christmas’.
That doesn’t really matter to Google, of course – all of these devices, even the iPad, are expanding the inventory for Adsense. But they’re probably not a great target market for anything other than generic web use – even less than Android phones have proven to be.
(Cross posted from my Forbes.com blog)