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PlayBook, Galaxy Tab, TouchPad To Test Tablet Market

Apple has sold more than 15 million iPads, so there must be a booming tablet market, right? Not so fast.

Apple's iPad has been a runaway success, there's no disputing that. Apple sold more than 15 million tablets in its first year, and this week we'll find out how many iPad 2's have been sold since its March 11 debut (hint: a lot). The iPad's strong sales indicate that the computing public wants mobile computing devices, and tablets are the latest "it" form factor--or so everyone hopes.

Samsung started selling the Galaxy Tab, an Android 2.2 tablet with camera and a seven-inch display, in the fourth quarter of 2010. Within two months, Samsung crowed about huge sales of the Tab, which it said were at about two million. Later, Samsung admitted that it stuffed the channel full of two million Tabs. It has yet to say how many Tabs it has sold to real customers.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, no less than 50 new tablets were introduced, many of them running Android. Where are they?

The most impressive tablet seen at CES, the Motorola Xoom, actually hit the market on February 24. No one but Motorola and Verizon Wireless know how many have been sold. Analysts and channel-checkers don't believe all that many have reached consumer hands. One analyst pegs the number of Xooms sold at just 100,000. Is the Xoom a flop, or a slow-burner? Will Motorola announce huge sales in its next quarterly report? I dunno, but in the seven weeks since the Xoom became available, I have yet to see one actually being used by someone other than a mobile industry wonk.

There are two big-name tablets primed to hit the market in the coming weeks.

First, RIM's beleaguered PlayBook hits store shelves on April 19 for $499. The PlayBook was blasted in early reviews, and called incomplete thanks to its lack of native email support. Despite these negative early reviews, RIM's CEOs continue to heap praise on it and say that enterprise buyers are waiting. We'll see. Can the PlayBook get out the gate with some good momentum given the public spanking it has already received?

Next up will be LG's G-Slate tablet for T-Mobile, which will become available in the coming weeks. The G-Slate runs Android 3.0 Honeycomb, has an 8.9-inch display, and can shoot 3-D images/video. It will be the second Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablet to truly hit the market with carrier support in the U.S.

On the not-too-distant horizon, HTC's View 3D, HP's TouchPad, and Samsung's 8.9-inch and 10.1-inch Galaxy Tabs loom. These devices will be critical in defining the tablet market. If they fail to gel with buyers--whether for price, performance, or use-case reasons--it could spell doom for the tablet market.

The original Galaxy Tab may or may not have flopped, but it surely hasn't sold 15 million units. The Xoom is off to a really slow start. The PlayBook got ripped and will be limping to market April 19. Despite their virtues, none of these three devices--from top-tier hardware makers--has put a dent in the iPad's momentum in the market.

If none of the other tablets released between January and June of this year can take on the iPad, perhaps there isn't really a tablet market after all. Perhaps all Apple has done is to create an iPad market, not a tablet market. That's not necessarily a good thing (unless you are an Apple investor).

The market needs competition to really thrive. We have already seen the results from competition. Apple upped the ante with the iPad 2, and even though on a spec-for-spec basis it may not match some of the newest contenders, it is still winning. Would Apple have upped the ante if no other tablets had come out? Probably, but even Apple has to respond to what the market and competition demands.

The industries biggest players have sunk some serious cash into developing these products. Hopefully their collective efforts won't be wasted on a phantom market.

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