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In tablets, Android's star is rising but...

The debate about whether the Android tablet platform is cutting into Apple's iPad sales rages on.

In the wake of a new report, are Android tablets now a serious threat to Apple's iPad? The quick answer is maybe, if Amazon Kindle Fire shipments pan out as expected.

Let's first look at the report (see chart below) that came out Friday from Strategy Analytics.

While Apple iPad shipments are way up year to year (to 11.1 million from 4.2 million), Android's growth is huge (to 4.5 million from 0.1 million).

Strategy Analytics

That said, there are legitimate questions about whether we're comparing apples to oranges (pun intended). Virtually all of Apple's figures are sales--what market researchers like to call sell-through--while it's murkier for Android tablets. Which raises the question, how much of the 4.5 million is actual sell-through and how much just shipments into the sales channel?

Which leads to another question. Will Google's new Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" operating system boost Android tablet sell-through? "At the end of the day, the fundamental challenge remains that there isn't a lot of differentiation between these tablets. And the retail experience is still very confusing for consumers," said Richard Shim, an analyst at DisplaySearch, referring to a lingering problem that Ice Cream Sandwich may not solve.

However, throw Amazon's Kindle Fire (which runs a custom version of Android 2.3) into the mix and Apple may have a real fight on its hands. Out of the gate, sales have been remarkably strong for the Kindle Fire with first-month sales projected to be in the millions.

Here's my take-away. First, it should not be overlooked that the tablet market is still essentially one company (Apple) versus the rest of the world. In this context, there is no single Android tablet maker (e.g., Motorola, Samsung) that could be considered a material threat to Apple right now.

Second, consumers need a clear reason for buying a non-Apple tablet, which is seen as little more than excess baggage. This may change with the highly customized Kindle Fire, however, whose utility seems pretty clear: an e-reader-plus, i.e., read all of your favorite books but also get free cloud storage, Web browsing, music, apps, and e-mail.

Finally, the barrier to buying a non-Apple tablet needs to be low. At $199, the Kindle Fire makes this buying decision easy for those on the fence. And may even make consumers think twice about buying a future $499 iPad.

It's never smart to bet against Apple, however. It will continue to sell plenty of pricey iPads. In 2012, it may simply be a matter of the tablet market finally expanding beyond the iPad in a big way.