Never mind the iPad — where are the full-time Android tablet users?

Are Android tablets used for “real work” — as Samsung claims here — or is it just a marketing claim? CC-licensed photo by Samsung Newsroom.

Since the launch of the latest iPad Pro models, there’s been a renewed debate about whether you can junk your laptop and just use an iPad Pro full-time.

I think this argument is largely based on a false premise. What the iPad Pro offers isn’t necessarily complete displacement; it’s an alternative. If you’re asking the question “can the iPad Pro replace my laptop?” then you already have a laptop, and one presumes it’s working pretty well for you, because otherwise you’d be asking “which laptop should I buy next?”

In that situation, the iPad Pro does all those things you need to do when you don’t need a laptop. I’ve gone into this topic in some depth in a post on my own blog, The Overspill. (You should also totally sign up for my daily mailing list of interesting links. See how I got that in there with no annoying modals?)

However: one persistent commenter there, whenever I discuss this topic, says “YES BUT Android devices are cheaper and more plentiful and you should talk about those too.”

This intrigues me. It is absolutely true that Android-powered tablets sell in greater numbers than iPads. You can see that in this graph, sourced from IDC and Strategy Analytics (IDC for the total tablet numbers, Strategy Analytics for the Windows tablet figures):

If you go strictly on the number of tablets sold, then Androids have sold plenty more than iPads or Windows tablets (same sources as before):

They also tend to be cheaper than iPads (though that’s not necessarily true since Apple cut the price on the entry-level iPad earlier this year).

So given all that, here’s my question: why aren’t we talking about full-time Android tablet users, rather than discussing whether the iPad Pro can replace/supplant your laptop? After all, Android tablets have pretty much the same apps as iOS, and you can even access a file system if you want.

Missing? Inaction?

So where are the people using Android tablets full-time rather than a Windows laptop? (Note that a Chromebook doesn’t count; it’s not the same thing.)

Another thing to note: cumulative sales aren’t the same as installed base. (And it’s installed base that you should pay attention to.) How long do people keep using their Android tablets? How long do they keep using iPads? I don’t know the answer to the first, but smarter people than me — specifically, former Wall St analyst Neil Cybart, who now runs the Above Avalon newsletter about things around Apple — have run the numbers on iPads.

Note that at the end of June 2018, cumulative iPad sales were 416.2m.

Cybart’s estimate for the iPad user base is: 238 million plus 55 million “grey market” iPads:

This assumes that roughly 50% of people upgrading their iPad since 2014 have either traded-in or handed-down their iPad to someone else. It’s probably not realistic to assume something like 70% or 80% of the devices are being recirculated given that upgraders are coming from pretty old models.

Total 325m user base. That’s about 78% of the total that have been sold.

We can’t tell how many Android tablets are still in use; Google doesn’t release that data. Let’s ask a different question: do people use Android tablets full-time in preference to PCs?

I decided to ask the folks at Android Police, which for my money is the best Android news site out there. (The bar isn’t high, to be honest — there’s an astonishing amount of press release churn across the sector — but they rise above it. David Ruddock in particular is excellent when he gets his hooks into something.)

Let’s ask Twitter

So here’s what I asked:

Their responses:

Stephen Hall from 9to5Google joins in:

There’s an interjection from an onlooker that “I have seen an electronics retail store use Android tablets for billing machines”. This isn’t what I’m talking about, though. I’ve seen plenty of iPads being used as cash registers and (simultaneously) music players in shops. Single-use applications like that aren’t “replacing your laptop”, which is what I want to look at.

Back to the discussion:

Another onlooker then says “well, Android tablets are now ChromeOS tablets”. It seems to me that while this changes the game somewhat — you’ll be able to run Android apps on what’s effectively a Chromebook. Those are just starting to arrive in shops:

David Ruddock chimes in:

And we also hear from Artem Russakovski, founder of Android Police:

So that’s the view of the folks over at Android Police. But even so, I’d like to hear. If you’re using an Android tablet for your all-the-time daily driver (or you’re trying to), how’s that going? Or have you tried and given up, in which case what was the block? Would love to hear in the comments. Or I’m on Twitter.

Update: we found one! Henri Bergius has been using a Google Pixel C tablet, with the Pixel C keyboard, for quite some time. He uses it for coding and plenty more. Highly recommend his blogpost, and related articles on his site.

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Charles Arthur

Tech journalist; author of “Social Warming: how social media polarises us all” and two others. The Guardian’s Technology editor 2005–14. Speaker, moderator.