Tablets powered by Google’s Android software are picking up steam. Even though Apple’s iPad maintained its market lead throughout fourth quarter of last year, Amazon’s dirt-cheap Kindle Fire device that costs just $199 helped Android gain share. This is the gist of the latest survey by research firm Strategy Analytics that was released this morning.

Global tablet shipments reached 26.8 million units in the fourth quarter of 2011— up 150 percent from 10.7 million from the year-ago quarter. Global tablet shipments hit 66.9 million units throughout 2011— a 260 percent increase from just 18.6 million units in 2010. Looking at how tablet vendors performed throughout Q4 2011, the survey recorded a 39.1 percent share for tablets powered by Android. Even though it is a record for tablets driven by Google’s software, Apple sold 15.43 million iPads during the holiday quarter for a healthy 57.6 percent share. This left the remaining 3 percent for tablets outside the Android/iOS tablet duopoly, with Microsoft-driven devices holding onto 1 percent share of the market.

These statistics compare to a Strategy Analytics’ survey for the September 2011 quarter that depicted a 27 percent share for Android tablets in Q3 2011 (up from 2.3 percent in Q3 2010) and 67 percent for iPad (down from 96 percent in Q3 2010). It is fair to assume that Android tablets gained momentum thanks, in no small part, to the success of the Amazon device that launched Oct. 15, 2011. Still, the iPad is still king of the hill as some analysts expect its lead to maintain throughout 2012.

Strategy Analytics Research Director Peter King opined:

Apple shipped a robust 15.4 million iPads worldwide and maintained its strong market leadership with 58 percent share during the fourth quarter of 2011. Apple shrugged off the much-hyped threat from entry-level Android models this quarter.

Apple CEO Tim Cook argued during a conference call with analysts following the company’s monster earnings report that “limited function” tablets, such as the Kindle Fire, are not in the same league as the iPad, and —therefore— do not pose a threat to Apple. However, he believed Amazon would sell a “fair number” of tablets. Apple’s chief executive also claimed, based on weekly data following the Kindle Fire launch, Amazon’s device did not have an “obvious effect” on the iPad.

Both IHS iSuppli and ChangeWave Research found that while the Kindle Fire outperformed all non-Apple brands combined, most holiday shoppers chose an iPad. Cook’s argument is based on a belief that customers want an integrated device that just works coupled with the best experience available, so they will not settle for limited function and will instead choose an iPad instead. Various analysts who claimed Amazon’s device is simply a training wheel for the iPad share the notion.

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