The market for tablet computers is a booming one, as per recent figures. As of end 2010, 18 million tablets were shipped worldwide according to IDC (news, site). Apple is in the lead, with the iPad almost capturing the market for media tablets.

As expected, Apple has taken the lead with the iPad, with an 83% share in 2010 sales. The iPad's share in the sales figures actually dropped from 93% in 3Q 2010 to 73% in 4Q 2010, but still represents a positive nominal change, given that tablet shipments doubled to 10.1 million from 3Q to 4Q 2010 to support the holiday rush.

Strong Holiday Sales

Loren Loverde, IDC vice president for consumer device tracking, says they expected strong tablets sales during the holiday season. "Strong holiday sales of media tablets were in line with IDC projections and strong consumer interest in the category while device vendors scrambled to offer products competitive with Apple's iPad and now iPad 2," she says.

IDC says Samsung's Galaxy Tab was the iPad's biggest competitor during that period, with a 17% share of sales in 2010. Most other tablet manufacturers make up the small minority of other brands in the fringe, although IDC expects the recently-launched Motorola Xoom to be a worthy competitor, at least in terms of function.

Meanwhile, the ebook reader market grew 325% from 2009, with a total of 12.8 million units shipped as of end 2010. IDC says ebook readers or eReaders enjoyed visibility due to the popularity of tablets, and also from their being priced at a lower point than tablets.

Tablet vs. Computer vs. eBook Reader

IDC differentiates between "media tablets" and tablet PCs. Media tablets measure from 5 to 14 inches, and run lightweight operating systems. Meanwhile, tablet PCs are computers in tablet form factor that run full-fledged computer OSes. E-book readers or eReaders are single-purpose devices meant for reading written content.

The lines between these devices is constantly being blurred, though. Consider that ebook readers will sometimes be crippled versions of tablets. Barnes & Noble's Nook Color is one such example, being famous for actually being a customized Android tablet. "Rooting" the $250 device turns it into a full-fledged Android tablet capable of running the latest Honeycomb version of Android.

Likewise, virtualization easily turns media tablets into full-blown computers. Cloud computing easily minimizes the need for locally-run applications, and instead focuses on keeping work, data and processes in the cloud. This means, for instance, that a mobile worker can simply bring his iPad and leave the laptop behind while on the road.

Innovation to Continue

IDC predicts the tablet market to become even more competitive in 2011. Apple has recently launched its second-generation iPad, currently in back-order, having flown off the shelves post-launch. Other manufacturers, like Motorola, are hoping to compete with the iPad in terms of features. In particular, Motorola has its recently launched Xoom. These products have a better chance at succeeding if they can focus on specific niches or market segments, like corporate or commercial use.

Whether it's competition by price, by features or by niche, one thing's for sure: tablets are here to stay, and these have been boosted in popularity by the availability of content, and the ease by which users can manipulate touch-based user interfaces.