By the numbers: How'd 2012 mobile forecasts turn out?

Crystal-ball gazing is tough in sectors that are undergoing rapid change, which is why it's been especially difficult predicting the mobile market in recent years. Before the new year grabs our full attention, I wanted to take a quick look back at some of the mobile forecasts for 2012 to see just how prescient they were. (Thanks to my colleague Mari Keefe for pulling a lot of this data.)

Smartphones

The farther back you go, the harder it was to anticipate 2012's seismic shifts in mobile. In this market, a couple of years is a long, long time. Two years ago, for example, most analysts expected Symbian to be the number-one smartphone platform worldwide -- not only in 2012 but in '13 as well. Oops.

Gartner predicted that Android would finally catch Symbian in 2014, each with roughly 30% of the market. IDC, too, was projecting that Symbian "will maintain its number-one standing throughout the [four-year] forecast period with 32.9% share in 2014," although the firm rightly predicted that Symbian "will lose share, primarily to Android." (Corporate note: IDC is a sister company of Computerworld).

They were spot-on with the trend but quite a bit off on the velocity. Gartner last month estimated that Android snared a 72.4% share of global smartphone shipments last quarter while "Symbian is nearing the end of its lifecycle" at 2.6%. Overall for 2012, Android had a 68.3% worldwide smartphone market share, according to IDC.

In the ballpark even if the wrong direction: IDC had forecast that iOS would decline from 14.7% to 10.9% by 2014, but instead iPhone market share grew in 2012, to 18.8%,

And finally, the pace of smartphone adoption caught some by surprise. The January 2010 IDC forecast expected worldwide smartphone shipments to surpass 390 million units by 2013. This month, IDC estimated that 2012 smartphone shipments would top 717 million units.

While many 2010 prognostications failed to anticipate the upheavals to come, last year's forecasts for 2012 were much closer to the mark.

IDC said last December that '12 would be "the Year of Mobile Ascendency," and it's tough to argue with that. IDC's Frank Gens said mobile devices would out-ship PCs by more than 2 to 1 this year and generate more revenue than PCs.

More than 700 million smartphones and tablets should ship in 2012, IDC said last year, and in fact the firm now estimates that 717 million smartphones along with 122 million tablets will have sold worldwide in 2012 when the final numbers are tallied.

Tablets

Market share forecast

Change in the tablet market accelerated considerably as 2012 came to a close. In its 2012 forecast last December, IDC estimated that the iPad would hold a 62% market share -- quite close to last month's forecast of a 59.9% iOS tablet share in 2012. And IDC's Predictions 2012 report accurately warned: "The iPad will still dominate (62% share), but serious branded competition is arriving."

 Competition did indeed arrive, just a bit earlier than expected. IDC's estimate for iPad 2012 tablet market share dropped considerably in its December tracking data, with iOS declining to 53.8% vs. surging Android's 42.7%. Especially when there's a high growth curve, the introduction of unexpectedly popular products can accelerate any expected trends in the mobile space these days. We'll have to wait until next year to see how Apple's iPad Mini, Google's Nexus 7 and other newcomers performed during the holiday shopping season -- and whose 2013 market share predictions come closest.

Overall, IHSiSuppli was just a shade overenthusiastic about the tablet market, predicting last December that 129 million media tablets would ship worldwide in 2012. They currently expect that number to hit 120 million.

Bottom line? If past performance is a guide, current mobile forecasts for 2013 are likely to be reasonably close to the mark. But you might want to bring a more critical eye to reports today that try to pin down mobile data trends out tt 2015 and beyond.

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