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 month that the addition of a so-called "iPad Mini" into its model line-up will keep Apple's share above the 60% bar for the foreseeable future. Apple's tablet line overall would account for 60.8% of the market in 2016.
That's a huge turnaround from earlier IDC projections that several months earlier predicted the iPad would slip under 50% as soon as 2014 and fall to 47.8% by 2016. In February, 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-in. 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-in. 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 newest tablet forecast the company made.
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 February 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%, 50.5% and 47.8% 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% share; to 90.1 million units (63.1%) in 2013; and to 134.9 million (a 60.8% 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-in. tablet would account for 23% of all iPad sales, IDC said, with that share gradually climbing to 29% by 2015 before dipping to 24.2% 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 in a report based on the June forecast. "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."