Blog Post

E-Reader Shipments Are Declining…Unless They're Increasing

A look at two new reports about shipments of media tablets and e-readers shows that nobody really has any idea yet whether tablets are cannibalizing e-reader sales.

First up is today’s report from market research firm IDC, which finds “worldwide media tablet shipments into sales channels” increased by 56.1 percent in Q4 2011, to 28.2 million units (up 155 percent over Q4 2010 shipments). The company says 4.7 million of the tablets shipped were Kindle Fires, compared to 15.4 million iPads — giving Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) 54.7 percent worldwide market share, and Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) 16.8 percent. Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) is at fourth place, between Samsung and Pandigital, making up an estimated 3.5 percent of the global market (and that’s down one percent from the previous quarter, says IDC).

E-ink-based e-readers also experienced “stronger-than-expected” growth in Q4, which the company attributes to “sharp price cuts in established markets” as well as more shipments to countries outside North America. 10.7 million e-readers were shipped worldwide in Q4, says IDC, up from 6.5 million units in Q3. And the company thinks that growth will continue as Amazon, B&N and Kobo expand internationally.

The first quarter of 2012 will show a decline following the holidays, IDC says, with 7.4 million units shipping during the quarter.

The second report was released by Digitimes earlier this month, and it tells a different story: The company thinks e-reader shipments will “slip” to two million units in Q1 2012, down from an estimated nine million units in Q4 2011. IDC and Digitimes’ estimates differ by two million for Q4 2011 and five million for Q1 2012.

What to make of the conflicting reports? It’s just another reminder that they are estimates and that this data is coming from research firms, not directly from Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble themselves. As I’ve written before, it is too early to say whether media tablets will cannibalize e-reader sales. It could happen, but three months of Kindle Fire sales doesn’t provide enough data to generalize, and device adoption patterns may be very different outside North America.