IDC: Apple’s iPad Rules Tablet Sales Today But Android Makers Will Overtake It By 2016

With news of Apple’s new iPad selling out its first run due to overwhelming demand, 2012 is off to a galloping start for the tablet market; and because of that IDC is upping its forecasts for how many “media” tablets will be shipped this year. The analysts predict that the number will top 106.1 million units, up from their previous forecast of 87.7 million units, due in part to strong demand for that new iPad, but also a number of other devices at a range of price points.

Indeed, while Apple will continue to be the single biggest tablet maker on the market, Android, collectively, will continue to hold its own against it, with some notable devices like the Amazon Kindle Fire doing particularly well. But it will not be until 2016 — four years from now — that IDC thinks that Android shipments will outnumber those of iOS.

Even though the Kindle Fire was available only in the U.S. in Q4, IDC says that the $199 device accounted for 16.8 percent of all tablet shipments in Q4 2011, or some 4.7 million units, making it the largest “Android” vendor. Samsung, despite its multiple Android tablets, was bumped down to second-biggest Android maker with a 5.8 percent share of the market. Barnes & Noble and Pandigital, the other top Android tablet makers, both saw their shares of shipments slide. The tablets to watch, it seems, are those that combine low price with high content promise.

None of that was a match for Apple, however, which accounted for 54.7 percent of all shipments in Q4, or 15.4 million units. While that was a rise of 110 percent over the year before, that still did not outpace the overall growth of the tablet market, which IDC says grew by 155 percent between the two quarters. Overall, Android tablets accounted for 44.6 percent of all sales, while RIM’s PlayBook slipped down to 0.7 percent from 1.1 percent a year before.

A couple of things worth noting about IDC’s numbers, taken from its quarterly tablet and e-reader tracker:

Although many predict that e-readers will eventually die a death blow dealt by tablets, for the moment their fortunes look okay. They grew less than half as well as tablets did — up by 64.3 percent between Q4 2011 and 2011 — but they are still on the rise, with e-reader makers like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kobo in total shipping 10.7 million units in the quarter.

IDC gives no weight to Microsoft and its new, tablet-friendly Windows 8 platform in its “media tablet” forecasts. As we saw last month, there are a number of devices being built on the OS, and if you believe all the reports, there will be more coming from the likes of Nokia to add to that. These are not expected to start shipping in earnest until much later this year. In its forecast, “others” apart from iOS and Android account for only a tiny sliver of overall shipments — and, by default, sales.

And that’s the other point always worth remembering about shipments. This tends to be the metric tracked most closely by analysts, because they get their numbers from device makers but also the channels that receive and distribute them; the shipment numbers are based on estimated demand. Ultimately, though, sometimes these shipments are out of sync with how a product actually gets bought — although analysts usually say that in the long run those corrections are accounted for with fewer shipments in subsequent quarters.