Android's funny-numbers problem

There are lies, damned lies, and market share reports that seem to have little basis in hard data when it comes to tablet figures

Although Amazon.com reported disappointing earnings yesterday, it did say Kindle sales were a bright spot in the final quarter of 2011, claiming that sales of these devices had tripled. But the company refused to cite specific sales numbers or even say what proportion of its e-reader sales were for its Kindle Fire, a low-end media tablet based on Amazon.com's version of Google's Android operating system.

The lack of transparency about Kindle Fire tablet sales contrasts sharply with the figures Apple reported a week ago of actual sales to customers: 15.4 million iPads in that period. And the lack of transparency doesn't stop with Amazon. Samsung, Acer, and other Android tablet makers also keep their actual sales figures unclear.

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Some report shipments, which is how many devices were sent to retailers. But shipment numbers are meaningless: Stores ship back the ones that are unsold, and it's an old trick called channel stuffing to overship products to claim a great quarter, since few people count the returns later or revise those figures for actual net sales to customers. And some report nothing at all about tablet sales. Samsung is such a firm, yet it's considered to be the top seller of Android tablets.

Two companies -- Apple and Motorola Mobility -- do report actual sales. Motorola, considered the second or third highest seller of Android tablets (before or after Acer), said it shipped 200,000 Xoom and Xyboard tablets in the fourth quarter.

Given the lack of transparent sales reporting by most Android vendors, dozens of research firms, analyst firms, and others are happy to issue their own numbers. There've been more than a dozen tablet market share reports in the last two weeks, for example. I don't trust any of them, as they are all based on very fuzzy data -- mainly the same suspect shipment data that the vendors report.

Among the most unbelievable were Strategy Analytics' claims that Android tablets accounted for 39.1 percent of all tablets shipped (not necessarily sold to users) in the fourth quarter -- that's 10.5 million units. Before the holidays, the reputable research firms, such as Gartner and IDC, were projecting around 25 percent. Apple's iPad sales (actual sales to customers, that is) for that quarter beat everyone's estimates. And circumstantial data, such as Web traffic measurements, suggest that iPads were at least 80 percent of sales.

So, Strategy Analytics' 47.6 percent iPad sales figures (using Apple's previously reported figure of 15.4 million units and its own calculation of Android shipments) make no sense. Most likely they reflect Android channel stuffing at a selection of retailers. I don't know about you, but at the Best Buys I visited in December in San Francisco, the Android tablets languished, while the iPads flew off the shelves.

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