Apple will continue to dominate the world's tablet market through 2016 if it launches a smaller iPad this year, according to research firm IDC.
In a revised five-year forecast, IDC said last week that the addition of a so-called "iPad Mini" into its model line-up means will keep Apple's share above the 60 per cent bar for the foreseeable future. Apple's tablet line overall would account for 60.8 per cent of the market in 2016.
That's a huge turnaround from earlier IDC projections that just two months ago predicted the iPad would slip under 50 per cent as soon as 2014 and fall to 47.8 per cent by 2016. In May, IDC estimated that Android tablets would soon start to chew into Apple's lead and by 2015 would account for the majority of devices.
The difference between the two forecasts for the iPad was a whopping 14 percentage points.
IDC said the about-face was prompted by its belief - shared by many, though not all, analysts - that Apple would unveil a smaller iPad, likely one with a 7.85-inch display this year, perhaps as early as September or October.
"A strong product launch in March [of the new iPad] - coupled with the strong possibility of a 7-inch product launch in 2H12 - leads us to believe that Apple's dominant share in the category is here to stay," Tom Mainelli, an analyst with IDC, said in the revised tablet forecast the company.
According to Mainelli, an iPad Mini would keep Apple as the No. 1 tablet supplier through 2016, and depress earlier projections for devices powered by Google's Android OS.
In its May forecast, for example, IDC predicted that iOS tablet sales would be 58 million in 2012, 69.4 million in 2013 and by 2016, would total 94.7 million. Apple's share of the global tablet market was projected be 54.7 per cent, 50.5 per cent and 47.8 per cent in those years, respectively.
Adding an iPad Mini to the mix, however, boosted the firm's forecast for iOS to 67.1 million in 2012, for a 62.5 per cent share; to 90.1 million units (63.1 per cent) in 2013; and to 134.9 million (a 60.8 per cent share) in 2016.
Assuming that the additional numbers represent iPad Mini sales only, IDC predicts that Apple would sell 9.1 million of the smaller tablets this year, 20.7 million the next and 30.2 million in 2016.
In 2013, the first full year of an iPad Mini, the 7-inch tablet would account for 23 per cent of all iPad sales, IDC said, with that share gradually climbing to 29 per cent by 2015 before dipping to 24.2 per cent in 2016, the final year of the five-year forecast.
Those sales would come at the expense of the less-expensive Android tablets, which Mainelli described as in trouble even without the addition of an iPad Mini to his prognostication model.
"After a strong surge in 4Q11, Android's fortunes have dimmed in 2012," Mainelli wrote. "Apple's continued strength, as well as the economies of scale the company's huge shipment totals engender, continues to make it extremely difficult for other vendors to gain purchase in this market."
IDC's revised tablet sales forecast assumes Apple will unveil an 'iPad Mini' this year, which would juice sales by 23 per cent next year. (Data: IDC.)
Insert the iPad Mini into the mix, however, and Android's future is even murkier.
Assuming an iPad Mini, Android sales will dip 7.7 million from IDC's earlier forecast, ending 2012 with 39.2 million units sold. The smaller iPad impact grows from there, as Mainelli subtracted 14.9 million Android tablets from 2013's tally, 16 million from 2015's and 15.7 million from 2016's.
The new forecast reduced previous predictions of Android tablet sales by 29 per cent in 2012 and by 18.4 per cent in 2016.
Android's share of the total tablet market, pegged to break the 50% bar in 2015 by IDC in its May forecast, would be just 37.4% that year if Apple does unveil a smaller iPad.
Other analysts also see Apple retaining its top-dog position in the tablet market if an iPad Mini is forthcoming.
In May, for instance, IHS iSuppli said that slowing sales of Amazon's Kindle Fire - the most popular of the 7-inch tablets powered by Android - stronger-than-expected sales of the new 9.7-inch iPad and the likelihood of a more petite iPad would reverse Apple's late-2011 market share dip. In 2012, iSuppli forecast, Apple's tablets would account for 61 per cent of the market for 2012.
Brian White of Topeka Capital Markets also sees a strong case for an iPad Mini.
"The market opportunity could eventually be larger for the 'iPad Mini' given the growth trends in developing countries," White said in a note to clients last week. "We view the potential addition of the iPad Mini as a long-term positive for Apple's iPad franchise and necessary to keep competitors from trying to control the lower price-point segment of the market."
White believes that while an iPad Mini would cannibalize some sales of the larger -- and more expensive - 9.7-inch iPad, it would be minimal, perhaps as low as just 10 per cent to 20 per cent. (Meaning that of every 10 larger iPad potential purchases, one or at most two would be ceded to an iPad Mini.)
"We would not be surprised if certain consumers end up owning both a regular-sized iPad and an iPad Mini, swapping between the two devices for different occasions," argued White. "With iCloud, the content on the two iPads can be automatically duplicated and thus easier to swap between Apple devices."
Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about macintosh in Computerworld's Macintosh Topic Center.