Why the decline of the iPad is highly exaggerated

Yet another analyst report has joined the chorus of those claiming Apple(s aapl) will see its majority market share for tablet devices slide to less than a majority by 2014-2015. This time, it’s analyst Jack Gold, echoing similar sentiments made earlier in the year by Gartner, which the company reiterated this past September. (s it)

It’s understandable that analysts would predict a similar sort of trajectory for the iPad that the iPhone has experienced; after all, a tablet is just a larger smartphone, and both categories of devices run basically the same mobile operating systems, at least as far as iOS and Android(s goog) are concerned.

The only proven tablet OS

But the experience on both Android and iOS tablets for end users isn’t nearly the same as the experience on phones using both platforms. If Android feels a bit immature on smartphone hardware, it feels exceedingly so on tablet devices. IOS, on the other hand, feels tailor-made for each. Nothing about it seems hasty, or an attempt to quickly gain a foothold in a market the OS was shoehorned into in the first place, the way Honeycomb did. Ice Cream Sandwich could improve the situation, but at most, it will probably be an evolutionary update, if the history of Android OS iteration is any example.

In other words, Android has yet to prove it can even deliver a mature, feature-complete tablet OS designed to take advantage of larger-screened devices. That Gold suggests in his note that QNX (s rimm) and Microsoft (s msft) will be able to each acquire 10 percent of the tablet market by 2015 is an even greater reach, since those platforms have even more to prove in terms of market relevance. RIM can’t even get email working on its platform until 2012, and Microsoft’s software is a risky desktop/mobile hybrid that has yet to see a public release. Predicting either’s ascendancy at this point to a solid but distant third is like seeing Zune and anticipating it would eventually be a serious contender alongside the iPod.

Distribution model differences

Predicting the iPad vs Android tablets market to proceed along the same lines of the iPhone vs. Android phones market also discounts key differences in the distribution model of both devices. Tablets, despite some support from carriers for 3G data plans, stand in for computers more than phones for most consumers, and that’s the way many people shop for them, too.

Carriers, then, don’t have nearly as much say in which devices get pushed as they do with smartphones. In the past (and still today), if you wanted an iPhone, in many markets you were stuck with one or two carriers. If you wanted network choice, you had to go to a different device. Also, carriers have tended to favor Android because it offers them more customization options, allowing them greater controller over the customer relationship.

So long as the tablet isn’t inextricably tied to distribution through network operators, Apple will have an advantage, since it has the strongest marketing, sales and retail network of any device OEM.

Usage still far ahead

As we reported yesterday, Apple’s iOS market share by usage is still well ahead of Android or any other competitor, as measured by website access by platform and by browser. Those numbers combine both tablet and smartphone figures, but since Android is acknowledged to be faring much better versus iOS in smartphones than in tablets, it stands to reason that the iPad is skewing things heavily in Apple’s favor.

We sometimes see reports that claim Apple is losing ground, but more often than not, those numbers reflect shipments, not actual sales to consumers, as Kevin Tofel pointed out. Many of the Android devices reported as shipped are likely sitting on store shelves, whereas Apple’s numbers represent devices actively being used by consumers.

Determining the actual gap here is made even more difficult when you consider that new Android tablets are constantly coming to market. Combine old stock with new, throw in a glut of essentially obsolete devices in the form of the discontinued HP TouchPad(s hpq), which could be had for just $99 during the last couple of months, and you get even more of a statistical minefield that probably doesn’t represent long-term trends in any accurate way.

Apple is best positioned to innovate

The iPad has a huge lead in its current form, and Apple has lots of money to spend on R&D, which makes it the best-positioned tablet-maker to introduce category-innovating new form factors, features and technologies. The competition can try to shake things up, too, and have done so with different sizes, detachable laptop docks, etc., but if the groundwork isn’t laid, these variations on Apple’s successful model have little chance of succeeding.

Predictions that draw parallels between the smartphone realm and the tablet market are missing the point; the real future makeup of the tablet landscape will be drawn by unconventional attacks like Amazon’s $199 Kindle Fire(s amzn), which counts not on mimicking Apple’s success, but on consumer willingness to sacrifice on features in order to get a low-cost, content consumption device.

Even so, I think the iPad will weather these and other assaults and continue to reign beyond the 2015 mark, for the reasons outlined above and my past arguments about why Apple’s tablet is still more appealing than the Amazon offering.