Apple's once-dominant lead in the fast-growing tablet market is shrinking as buyers move to Android tablets, which are cheaper and available in different sizes, according to separate research released by IHS and IDC on Wednesday.
Tablet shipments during the third quarter this year totaled 47.6 million units, growing by 36.7 percent compared to the same quarter last year, according to IDC. Android tablets drove the growth, while Apple's iPad shipments were flat and Windows tablets continued to struggle.
Apple maintained the top spot in tablet shipments, totaling 14.1 million iPads during the quarter, growing by just 0.6 percent compared to the previous year. The company's tablet market share fell to 29.6 percent during the third quarter, down from 40.2 percent a year ago.
The current tablet market share of 29.6 percent is Apple's lowest to date, IDC said. Research firm IHS pegged Apple's third-quarter market share at 29.7 percent.
Apple's tablet shipments slowed due to a delay in product launches to the fourth quarter from earlier in the year. But the company is poised to regain market share with the new iPad Air and iPad Mini with Retina display, which will start shipping in November.
"With two 7.9-inch [iPad Mini] models starting at [US]$299 and $399, and two 9.7-inch models starting at $399 and $499, Apple is taking steps to appeal to multiple segments," said Jitesh Ubrani, IDC research analyst, in a statement.
Samsung was the biggest beneficiary of the growth in Android tablets, holding 20.4 percent market share during the third quarter, up from 12.4 percent a year ago. The South Korean company's tablet shipments totaled 9.7 million units, growing by 123 percent compared to last year. Asustek was in third place with shipments up 53.9 percent to 3.5 million. Lenovo was in the fourth spot, with tablet shipments of 2.3 million, growing by a whopping 420.7 percent. Acer was in fifth place, with quarterly shipments growing by 346.3 percent.
While Apple is the solo tablet vendor with iOS, the sheer volume and spate of sub-$250 tablets has made Android a leading tablet OS, said Rhoda Alexander, director of tablet research at IHS.
"The erosion in Apple's unit shipment market share was inevitable," Alexander said in a statement.
Samsung took some cues from its smartphone market and expanded its tablet offerings at different prices, Alexander said. But the low margins of Android devices have hurt the profits of tablet makers.
"Cheaper almost always wins the volume race, and competitors were quick to adjust pricing when it became clear that it was impossible to achieve anything close to Apple's unit growth at the same price level," Alexander said.
The overall installed base of Android tablets received an assist from a group of "other" small tablet vendors, which held the single largest market share in the IDC and IHS surveys. The group includes regional tablet vendors in China that ship sub-$100 tablets with 7-inch screens, cheap components and older versions of Android. Tablet shipments from that group totaled 16.8 million units according to IDC, and 16.4 million according to IHS.
The return rates on those cheap tablets are high, and the devices don't last too long. The cheap tablet business model is not yet proven, analysts said.
"Shipments alone won't guarantee long-term success. For that you need a sustainable hardware business model, a healthy ecosystem for developers and happy end users," said Tom Mainelli, research director of tablets at IDC.