Apple's iOS will be most popular media tablet platform through 2015

iPad 2

Are you thinking of developing apps for Honeycomb, or perhaps are waiting to buy an Android 3.0 tablet? Perhaps you should reconsider iPad. Gartner claims that Apple's iOS will dominate the media tablet operating system market at least through 2015. If the analyst firm is right, Apple's tablet -- and broader mobile platform -- will be the premiere choice for the foreseeable future and the one where the larger number of apps will be.

Of course, as I've been repeatedly writing, the categories media tablet and smartphone are in such huge flux, making any prediction is questionable at best. However, with iPad selling so well and most Honeycomb tablets MIA until at least summer, this forecast is more credible than Gartner's predictions about smartphones in 2015 -- at least in the short term.

It's a Two-Way Race

Gartner sees Apple's media tablet OS market share steadily declining through the forecast period, from 83.9 percent last year to 68.7 percent this year to 63.7 percent next year to 47.1 percent in 2015. By comparison, Gartner predicts that Android will go from 19.9 percent this year to 38.6 percent in 2015. HP's WebOS is a non-starter, going from 0 percent last year to 3 percent in 2015. Research in Motion's QNX will reach 10 percent share in 2015, Gartner asserts.

In a statement, Carolina Milanesi, Gartner research vice president, asserts that many iPad competitors are taking the wrong approach "by first delivering on hardware and then trying to leverage the platform ecosystem." They're repeating mistakes "made in the first response wave to the iPhone, as they are prioritizing hardware features over applications, services and overall user experience. Tablets will be much more dependent on the latter than smartphones have been, and the sooner vendors realize that the better chance they have to compete head-to-head with Apple."

However, Google learned something from Android 2.x on smartphones that, so far, doesn't look like repeated mistakes on Android 3.x for tablets. Gartner praised Google for choosing not to immediately make Honeycomb available via open source. The analyst firm boldly proclaims the approach will prevent Honeycomb fragmentation.

"The new licensing model Google has introduced with Honeycomb enables Google to drive more control, allowing only optimal tablet implementations that don't compromise quality of experience," Roberta Cozza, Gartner principal analyst, says in a statement. "This might mean that prices will drop at a slower pace than what we have seen in the smartphone market."

The market is headed for growth, with Gartner forecasting nearly 70 million tablet sales this year, rising to 294 million in 2015.

What About the "Halo" Effect?

Much about the forecast's accuracy and the one for smartphones depends on Gartner's underlying assumptions. "Volume will be driven by support from many players, the ecosystem of applications for tablets getting more competitive and some platform flexibility allowing lower price points," Cozza says. Yes, but what about the broader platform, since iOS is available for smartphones and media tablets? Seems to me that any forecast must take into account "halo" sales from one product to another.  Gartner does consider them, but analysts don't specify extent of impact on the forecast.

"Smartphone users will want to buy a tablet that runs the same operating system as their smartphone," Milanesi says in the statement. "This is so that they can share applications across devices as well as for the sense of familiarity the user interfaces will bring." Well that sounds mighty good for Apple. While I asserted in October 2009 that iPhone can't win the smartphone wars, Apple can still win the mobile platform wars. Wider reach of iOS is major reason.

"Vendors developing on Android should be prepared to see more cross brand ownership as some users might put OS over brand when it comes to the purchasing decision," Milanesi asserts. "Improvements on usability and brand recognition are the strongest differentiators they can focus on." I don't agree. That's Windows PC thinking -- that OS matters more. The operating system mattered because Microsoft built up strong brand identity around Windows. Otherwise, consumers -- and even many business decision makers -- don't care a hoot about the operating system. Brand matters, as do applications -- meaning what you can do with the OS. Google has smartly built up brand identity with Android (don't you just love the green robot) that will be a brand differentiator -- if leveraged. Verizon smartly capitalized on Android branding by creating its own Droid brand.

Something else about the forecast: Gartner's media tablet definition:

A media tablet is a device based on a touchscreen display (typically with a multitouch interface) whose primary focus is the consumption of media. The devices have screens with a diagonal dimension that is over 5 inches and may include screens that are as large as is practical for handheld use, roughly up to 15 inches. The media tablet runs a lightweight OS such as Android and iOS that is more limited than, or a subset of, the traditional fully featured OS such as Windows.

I wouldn't call either Android or iOS  lightweight. They are exceedingly capable operating systems. Also, the breadth of iPad applications -- and at least one demoed for Honeycomb -- show plenty of content creation opportunities. Today, Adobe announced new Photoshop content creation apps for media tablets. Gartner should reconsider its definitions.

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