It's hard to believe, but a year ago the Apple iPad was still vaporware -- a pipe dream subject of tremendous speculation and rumor. When 2010 began, there wasn't even a tablet market to speak of, but now the iPad is the dominant player in it, and competitors are lining up in droves to try to claim a piece of the tablet pie.
But, while Dell launched an embarrassing attempt at a tablet with the Streak, and Samsung appears to have a decent iPad contender in the soon-to-be-launched Galaxy Tab, the majority of the iPad rivals are themselves vaporware subject to rumor and speculation at this point. Meanwhile, the iPad is everywhere.
Apple sold more than three million iPads in the first 80 days it was available. Gartner recently predicted that nearly 20 million tablets will be sold in 2010. With only ten weeks left in the year, and the anemic Dell Streak as the only tablet competitor actually available at this time, it seems fair to assume that the vast majority of those 20 million tablets will be iPads.
As if the significant head start in dominating the tablet market isn't enough, Apple's strategy of retail saturation trumps its rivals. While the Dell Streak is offered through Dell in conjunction with an AT&T wireless subsidy, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab is expected to be available at a carrier-subsidized discount from all four major wireless providers in the United States, the Apple iPad is almost literally available everywhere.
Where do people shop? Target has the iPad. Wal-Mart has the iPad. Best Buy has the iPad. Amazon has the iPad. Even AT&T and Verizon wireless stores will soon have the iPad--and the iPad 3G functionality won't even work with the Verizon network (Verizon is bundling the Wi-Fi iPad with a Mi-Fi portable broadband hotspot).
And, don't make the mistake of believing the myth that the iPad is merely a consumer entertainment toy not suited for business. The iPad has a wide variety of productive uses for mobile business tasks, and provides a thin, lightweight device with extensive battery life capable of replacing traditional notebooks and netbooks for a variety of common tasks. Thanks in large part to the road paved by the Apple iPhone, many businesses readily embraced the iPad as a business tool, and AT&T intends to market the iPad specifically to its business customers.
Right now, the deluge of rival vaporware tablets can one-up the iPad by including the features lacking in the Apple tablet. Things like front and rear-facing cameras, or expandable storage through an SD memory card slot are the primary features that set competing tablets apart...for now. Sometime in the first half of 2011, though, Apple will almost certainly launch an iPad 2.0 that addresses those shortcomings and leapfrogs the competition again.
The iPad created a market that wasn't there, and has a head start of millions of devices over emerging rival tablets. The iPad seems to have reached a point of self-fulfilling critical mass that will be difficult for challengers to compete with.