Android tablets are gaining, but it's not a two-horse race like smartphones

Credit: Paolo Camera via Flickr

Android tablets continue to gain steam at the expense of Apple's iPad, according to statistics out today from IDC.

Based on sales figures at the end of Q3, Android tablets will make up about 43% of all tablet sales 2012, up from 40% last year. Apple tablets will drop from around 56% to 54%.

These are small changes, but the trend is clear: Android once again is chipping away at the market that Apple created, just as happened with smartphones. The reason for the shift is much the same -- Android's low cost and customizability creates a low barrier to entry, which means it's possible for low-cost manufacturers to churn out inexpensive tablets (particularly for developing countries), while also letting companies like Samsung and Amazon create premium tablets at a competitive price.

There's one major difference between the markets, though.

Android phones are an incredibly fragmented platform -- more than half still run a two-year-old version of Android, Gingerbread -- but at least they're a platform. If you have an Android phone, you can download an app from the Google Play store and it will probably run on your phone. Developers might have to create tweaks for different versions of Android and different form factors, but there's one dominant app ecosystem. It's run loosely by one vendor, Google.

But the dominant Android tablet so far is Amazon's Kindle Fire, which has sold in the millions this year. That tablet is Android in the guts only -- the UI bears little resemblance to other Android tablets. More important, while you can run Android apps purchased through the Google Play store on the Kindle Fire, it's not easy. Amazon wants users to use its own app ecosystem and content store -- in fact, that's key to the business model with the Kindle Fire, where Amazon earns very thin margins on the hardware but hopes to create loyal content consumers (and shoppers). As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has said, Amazon only thinks it deserves to earn money from the Kindle Fire if you keep using it.

In other words, the Android tablet market is really a dual ecosystem, with Amazon and Google battling for control. Until that battle shakes out, it's not really accurate to call Android tablets a single platform.

Microsoft is another factor. The company has had little success drawing Windows Phone customers, and developers have understandably been slow to follow as well.

But with Windows 8, it is trying to blur the line between PCs and tablets, and create a single developer ecosystem for both platforms. If it succeeds, then the whole "tablet" market might become harder to define -- is a touch screen laptop a tablet? Is a touch screen slate with a detachable keyboard (like Surface) a tablet? 

Regardless, Windows 8 will ship on hundreds of millions of PCs in the coming years, and developers will find the platform hard to ignore.

That means that tablets, however you define them, will probably have several competing big ecosystems for the next few years.

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