When the Apple iPad hit the market, a lot of technology buffs turned up their collective noses at the user-friendly, "giant iPhone" design of the tablet. Apple got the last laugh -- the iPad is definitely the most popular tablet around, and the iPad 2 has cemented Apple's place as an absolute giant in consumer electronics.
Predictably, a number of manufacturers have followed suit by introducing their own tablets. However, the iPad's market presence is so strong that reviewers frequently refer to other tablets as "iPad alternatives." That's not really what you want if you're trying to win over some of Apple's customers, who value brand name and ease-of-use above all else.
However, in the last several months, the iPad has faced its first real competitors. Manufacturers are slowly figuring out that the best way to establish themselves is to focus on functionality and that hard-to-define cool factor, rather than raw power. A few manufacturers are seriously close to figuring out Apple's winning formula.
Two notable examples are the Amazon Kindle Fire and the Barnes and Noble Nook Tablet. Both devices use an Android operating system, so they're incredibly easy to use. They don't have much power, but they don't need it -- they undercut the iPad 2 by about $300, so they've got a significant price advantage. They can also handle most of the standard functions of an iPad. A Nook Tablet or a Kindle Fire can browse the web, read eBooks (obviously) or play MP3s and movies. While neither offer 3G, buyers looking for a simple tablet without a high-priced data plan won't miss it.
Still, some users won't want an underpowered tablet. The Asus Transformer Prime is the best example of a tablet that meets or exceeds the iPad's specs. It's quickly become one of the most popular tablets on the market, thanks to its optional keyboard dock. When attached, the dock provides a ton of extra battery life and essentially turns the Transformer Prime into a netbook. It's arguably more functional than an iPad, and with its powerful Tegra processor, it's more than capable of handling power-hungry apps.
This leads us to a problem with the Android tablet platform. While all of the tablets listed above have developed a market presence, they don't have the app selection of an iPad. It's easy to figure out why: app developers don't want to spend money on a less popular platform, and right now, the iPad's still the king. True, the Android market is a lot more open, but it's harder to find the coolest apps.
Google recently updated its Android Market with a snazzy new interface, and a recent update to the Android operating system has expanded functionality for many tablets. These are great steps that might ultimately allow Android tablets to start outselling the iPad -- at least until the inevitable launch of the iPad 3. Apple knows consumer electronics, but it's good to see Android tablet developers providing some healthy competition.