OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe incumbent has been overthrown. Gartner reports that sales of Android tablets surpassed Apple’s iPad for the first time in 2013, roughly two years earlier than its analysts predicted.

Devices running Google’s mobile operating system are now said to represent 62 percent of the tablet market, an increase from the 45.8 percent they represented in 2012. In contrast, Apple’s iPads nabbed 36 percent of the market, a decrease from the 52.8 percent they had in 2012.

Gartner attributes the bump in Android sales to an increase in the number of small, low-cost tablets running the operating system released in 2013. Here’s Gartner’s Roberta Cozza:

In 2013, tablets became a mainstream phenomenon, with a vast choice of Android-based tablets being within the budget of mainstream consumers while still offering adequate specifications. As the Android tablet market becomes highly commoditized, in 2014, it will be critical for vendors to focus on device experience and meaningful technology and ecosystem value — beyond just hardware and cost — to ensure brand loyalty and improved margins.

All is not lost for Apple. It remains the single most popular tablet manufacturer in the world with 36 percent of the market — its closest rival, Samsung, represents just 19 percent. The company hasn’t been beaten by a single competitor so much as it has been overthrown by a party of smaller manufacturers whose strength lies in numbers.

Reactions from around the Web

The Christian Science Monitor reminds everyone that this is the first time Apple has been knocked from its throne:

There are a couple of things to point out, though. First is that this is the first time that Apple – the company arguably responsible for sparking the tablet trend with the original iPad – has not led the market. Second is that we probably shouldn’t start writing the iPad’s obituary yet. From 2012 to 2013, sales of iPads actually increased, from 61 million to 70 million.

ZDNet consoles Microsoft, which represents a minuscule 2 percent of the tablet market:

But there was some good news for Microsoft – Gartner calculates that around four million Windows tablets sold last year, up from one million in 2012. That meant Redmond doubled its market share from a tiny one percent to a still-tiny two percent, although the analysts noted that Microsoft does have a better shares in ultramobiles that are more productivity oriented, where its partners are ramping up new form factors and designs.

TechCrunch notes that Amazon, which was expected to do well in the tablet market with its new-and-improved Kindle Fire products, didn’t perform as well as expected:

Interestingly, while many saw Amazon and its cut-price Kindle Fire as disruptors in the tablet space when the e-commerce giant first entered the market in 2011, it looks like the company has lost some steam. Sales were up by some 2 million to 9 million, but its overall market share declined to 4.8% from 6.6% in 2012. (And Gartner is not alone here; IDC noted similar declines for Amazon in quarterly sales earlier this year.)

Pando weighs in

I wrote in December that 2013 was the year tablets went mainstream:

Tablets are hardly novel. Ever since the iPad’s release in 2010, tablets have become increasingly common to our everyday lives. They’re used by consumers hoping to access the latest-and-greatest apps, by restaurants hoping to better manage their tables, and by toddlers who aren’t quite ready to go to the bathroom without having a screen in front of their faces. (Never mind that this last example is definitive proof of humanity’s imminent downfall.)

It’s unlikely that many of the early adopters willing to deal with the problems that plagued early tablets — middling battery life, blurry screens, a relative dearth of software —  are still without a device. Tablets have gotten better batteries, their screens are clearer, and they’re cheaper than ever before. The early adopters’ time has passed; the general consumers’ time is just beginning.

[Image credit: Roberta F (Creative Commons)]