It’s hard to take 20 steps at CES without someone thrusting a tablet computer at you this year.
With Apple having paved the way for tablets last year, 2011 is when the competition is hoping to chip away at the company’s dominance in the category. It’s going to be a tough fight, though.
Apple sold 7.5 million iPads in the first six months the device was on shelves. And it sold untold millions more during the holiday season.
iSuppli estimates the company currently holds a better-than 88 percent share of the tablet category. And even with new entries from Research in Motion, Toshiba and Hewlett-Packard scheduled to hit the market this year, it’s expected to still control more than 76 percent by the end of the year.
Critics might point at the relatively high cost of the iPad and some missing features (such as an integrated camera) as weaknesses that can be exploited, but analysts who cover the mobile space say those factors aren’t a big concern to most consumers.
“Apple has a tremendous advantage on the market right now,” says Rhoda Alexander of iSuppli. “They came out with the definitive product at the start of this market. They set the standard. They’re able to put together hardware, software, a user-friendly operating system and a full content suite. What we’ve seen the competition be hampered by is they fail to do all of this."
It’s likely to be a fight for second place among companies entering the space right now, but that’s hardly table scraps. Gartner expects total tablet shipments to top 55 million by the end of the year and 100 million by the end of 2012.
Most analysts say the competitor to watch is RIM’s Playbook. The Blackberry manufacturer already has deep ties with corporate clients and the Playbook will synch automatically with that handheld device, making the lives of IT departments everywhere easier.
The 7-inch tablet will use a new operating system that RIM has specifically designed for tablets —meaning it won’t run current Blackberry apps (a potential hurdle), but it will support Flash, something the iPad does not do. It also retains the security and management features that have made the Blackberry so popular.
And Microsoft is promising to join the battle as well. CEO Steve Ballmer in his pre-CES keynote showcased several tablet products—the most intriguing of which was a dual screen PC by Acer —though attendees are taking a wait and see attitude after the company made a similar presentation last year and its partners failed to produce any real-world products.
Overshadowing all of the tablets on display at the Las Vegas Convention Center, though, is one notable shadow: The iPad 2.
Steve Jobs is expected to announce features of the device soon, and iSuppli’s Alexander says she believes the company will actually roll out two updated models this year in order to maintain its leadership position.
Those new features, whatever they might be, could be enough to make the new models being shown this week quickly seem outdated and send competitors scrambling.
It wouldn’t be the first time. Last year’s CES was lined wall to wall with eReaders that planned to bring down Amazon’s Kindle or the then-upcoming iPad’s eBook features. As the Kindle prospered and Apple preached the virtues of multi-functionality, though, the majority of those devices never made it on to retail shelves.
Watch CNBC TV reports from CES all day Thursday and Friday, December 6 and 7. Maria Bartiromo will anchor "Closing Bell" from the show and will be speaking with numerous tech company CEOs, including Microsoft's Steve Ballmer and Sony's Howard Stringer.