The iPad will remain top dog in the tablet market until at least 2016 and likely well beyond, analysts believe.
Given the strength of the iPad - Apple had control over two-thirds of the media tablet market at the end of 2011, according to new data from analyst house Gartner - and the entry into the market of the third-generation device, this hardly seems like a bold claim. At the moment, it is difficult to imagine a media tablet market where the iPad isn't the market leader.
Indeed, Gartner's figures predict that of the 119 million media tablet sales worldwide in 2012, roughly 73 million - 61 percent - will be iPads. Into 2013, Apple could shift nearly 100 million iPads while the overall media tablet market grows to over 180 million, while by 2016, Apple will shift 170 million units - still giving it a 45 percent chunk of the market.
Gartner's projections for Android show Google's OS increasing its market share, too, though if the predicted rates of growth for both platforms continue Apple will dominate beyond 2016, the point at which Gartner's forecast stops.
While it could be argued that the iPad wasn't the first tablet PC - in fact, it wasn't even Apple's first tablet - it did beat Android to the punch and capitalised on the fact that it was the only show in town. It's significant that 'iPad' is becoming a generic term for a tablet computer, like 'Hoover' became the generic term for a vacuum cleaner - it shows just how dominant Apple has become in this particular market.
Even when other contenders did emerge, the iPad still overshadowed the market. "Despite PC vendors and phone manufacturers wanting a piece of the pie and launching themselves into the media tablet market, so far, we have seen very limited success outside of Apple with its iPad," said Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner.
"As vendors struggled to compete on price and differentiate enough on either the hardware or ecosystem, inventories were built and only 60 million units actually reached the hands of consumers across the world. The situation has not improved in early 2012, when the arrival of the new iPad has reset the benchmark for the product to beat."
The main problem with Android-based tablets, Gartner reckons, is a lack of appeal caused by not having enough tablet-specific apps available. With Android devices coming in a range of screen sizes, developers face a struggle to accomodate all of the different sizes and aspect ratios, meaning that apps can often look blocky on the screen of a tablet device. Besides, there are relatively few Android tablets in use when compared to the number of Android handsets, so it makes sense for app developers to concentrate on smaller screen sizes for the Android platform. With iOS, there are only two screen sizes to deal with and developers have created some 200,000 plus native apps for iPad to date.
Gartner's iPad and Beyond: The Future of the Tablet Market report also suggests that Windows 8 is going to be too late to take on the iPad's dominance of the media tablet arena. In fact, Gartner believes that fewer than five million media tablets running Windows will be sold in 2012, rising to the 44 million mark in 2016 - around a quarter of what Apple is expected to sell in that year.
While Windows 8 tablets will have some appeal in the enterprise market, Gartner believes, media tablets are likely to remain largely a consumer device. "Tablets have been created for consumers first and then relied on an ecosystem of apps and services that make them more manageable in the enterprise. When the deployment will come from the IT department we believe that operating systems such as Windows 8 will have an advantage as long as they are not seen as a compromise in usability for the users," said Milanesi.
However, Gartner says that 35 percent of media tablet sales in 2015 will come from the enterprise market, which could be good news for Microsoft. However, Apple's iPad is already beginning to make inroads in this market, as a recent study from ChangeWave shows. So Microsoft may struggle to make an impact in a market it might once have expected to dominate.
IDC, a rival analyst house, has a rather more pessimistic view of the media tablet landscape. It predicts overall media tablet sales of 108 million in 2012, ten million behind Gartner, while by 2016 the disparity has grown to over 170 million units, with IDC predicting 198 million sales to Gartner's 369 million.
That isn't the only area in which IDC and Gartner's predictions differ, either. In fact, IDC reckons Android tablets will outsell iPads by 2015 - though these projections were made less than one week after Apple announced the third-generation iPad.
"As the sole vendor shipping iOS products, Apple will remain dominant in terms of worldwide vendor unit shipments," Tom Mainelli, IDC's research director for Mobile Connected Devices said.
"However, the sheer number of vendors shipping low-priced, Android-based tablets means that Google's OS will overtake Apple's in terms of worldwide market share by 2015. We expect iOS to remain the revenue market share leader through the end of our 2016 forecast period and beyond."
Hasty as IDC's bold prediction might seem, others believe that a large number of low-cost Android tablets flooding the market could spell trouble for the iPad in years to come. ABI Research has also predicted that a strong challenge to Apple's dominance may come from Android tablets that are both cheaper and smaller than the iPad.
"The majority of new entrant media tablet models have been in the sub-$400 segment that focuses on growth markets like India and China. The strong wave of growth in this segment over the next few years is expected to be driven by the adoption in emerging markets," Jeff Orr, ABI's group director of consumer research believes.
So how could Apple stop Android's growth in the low-cost, smaller form factor segment? By producing a smaller, lower-cost model itself, of course. Talk of a 7in or 8in version of the iPad has been circulating wildly for months now, but the latest reports suggest that the rumoured 'iPad mini' may not see the light of day - if it even exists at all, that is.
However, Apple has shown a willingness to address emerging markets, particularly China - with some success. While a smaller, cheaper iPad might not be imminent, it may happen when buyers in these markets show signs that such a device would be popular, as well as a time when component costs are low enough to keep the price of the device affordable for the average citizen.