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Overall tablet sales were down 1.2 million units in the first three months of 2012, but strong iPad sales boosted Apple’s market share to 68 percent, according to market researcher International Data Corporation (IDC).

IDC had estimated sales of close to 18.6 million units, down from the previous Christmas season quarter’s 28.2 million units. A slower post-Christmas quarter is generally expected, but actual sales were 17.4 million units, 1.2 million tablets fewer than predicted.

The bright spot in early 2012? Apple shipments remained strong – almost 12 million iPads sold. Apple sold so many in part due to the same dual price strategy that has served them so well in the mobile phone market: the current model at a premium price, and last year’s model at an industry-competitive price.

The real surprise is in the Android numbers, which are down significantly. While in the holiday season Android-based tablets accounted for almost half of all sales, in 2012 so far Android market share has slipped to 32 percent. The big loser is Amazon, which saw sales of the Kindle Fire dip from a high of almost five million tablets to this quarter’s low of just about a million units.

The real question now: is the dip in Android numbers just a blip? Will Android continue its once seemingly inevitable rise to 50 percent to 60 percent market share?

Perhaps a better question is why Android was so strong in the last few months of 2011. Amazon’s Kindle Fire numbers show what the world’s top online retailer can do to move a market … and if Amazon is willing to absorb low margins and push digital razors out the door now in order to sell electronic blades in the future, Android will certainly recover. Selling the Fire almost at a loss, however, has certainly contributed to Amazon’s traditionally slim margins almost disappearing entirely in 2012.

IDC sees continued growth in the tablet market in 2012 and beyond, with Apple continuing to lead. How long that continues, however, depends on continued innovation from Cupertino – and whether Android manufacturers continue to improve their game.

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