1 in 4 tablets from last quarter run on Android? Hmmm…..

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Android tablets are quickly eating into Apple’s iPad leading market share with 26.9 percent of shipped tablets in the third quarter running Google’s mobile operating system. A Strategy Analytics report published on Friday comes to that conclusion, suggesting that 4.5 million Android tablets shipped last quarter use Android, while 11.1 million are powered by Apple’s iOS platform. The overall tablet market is up 280 percent from a year ago, showing no signs of a slowdown anytime soon, notes Fierce Wireless, which is where I found the report.

Reports such as this are a win for the Android camp, and while I respect the work done by Strategy Analytics, I’m not sure the report is that meaningful; a few aspects of these comparisons leave them open to considerable interpretation.

First is the definition of market share with respect to tablets sold vs tablets shipped. Apple’s figures are tablets sold, which don’t include tablets sitting on store shelves, tablets en route to stores or tablets sitting in a warehouse. By comparison, Android’s figures are the shipped number of tablets, so any devices sitting on a store shelf actually count, and they shouldn’t for market share purposes.

Next is the question of “what is an Android tablet?” It sounds like a simple question to answer, but it’s not. Why? The first Android tablets, going as far back to the middle of 2010, ran on Android 2.x, or Google’s smartphone platform. It wasn’t until February of 2011 that the first Android 3.0, or Honeycomb, tablet arrived. So are the small 7-inch tablets running the smartphone OS counted in the numbers? And what about the popular Barnes & Noble Nook Color, which can be easily modified to be a full-fledged Android tablet?

I asked Strategy Analytics to clarify both of those points and received the following email response from Neil Mawston, the analyst who wrote the report: “Yes, the press release refers to shipments, not sales. All sub-versions of Android are included. Yes, the B&N Nook Color tablet is included in the tablet figures.”

While that clarifies the definitions used for the analysis, it also muddies the waters for actual market share of Android tablets in use by version. Another way to measure the number of Android tablets is one I started to use back in July. Google provides bi-weekly figures to developers that show a version breakdown of devices accessing the Android Market over the prior two weeks.

If you know the total number of Android devices in the market, you can use the percentage data to get a reasonable estimate of how many Android 3.x devices are actively being used. Earlier this week, Andy Rubin said 190 million Android devices have been activated. Google’s dashboard currently shows 1.8 percent of devices hitting the Market run Android 3.0 or better. That works out to 3.42 million Android Honeycomb tablets.

The figure isn’t that far off from the 4.5 million shipped Android tablets that Strategy Analytics reports for the last quarter. Ideally, we’d need to see a quarterly figure of new Android activations to further refine this method. Activated devices are sold, not just shipped, so it provides a better measure of actual sales, and therefore, market share.

Assuming that Android tablet sales are dramatically rising, I’m not sure I understand why. What has changed from the prior quarter for these devices? Not much, aside from a few minor platform updates to address a tablet OS that was rushed to market. Aside from some price drops, I don’t see why consumers would suddenly be purchasing Android tablets. That doesn’t mean I think the iPad is the best tablet for everyone; I’m simply trying to understand the market share numbers.

Regardless of the Strategy Analytics report, perhaps the best indicator of which tablets are actually selling is to see what people are using. I’ve taken four cross-country trips in the past month and I’ve also been out and about in my local area. In all of my travels, I always pay attention to which mobile devices are being used. I saw iPads, smartphones and laptops, but aside from my own 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab, not one single Android tablet. Maybe I’m just travelling with the wrong crowd?

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