Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster predicted this week that the tablet market will play out much like the cell phone market has: Apple will lose its early lead to Google.
Munster is very bullish on tablets and pessimistic about the prospects for netbooks and laptops. "The tablet is undeniably going to be the winning category in mobile computing over the next decade," he said.
But ultimately Apple won't be able to maintain the lead in tablets, according to Munster.
What's even more interesting is that Munster believes the entire tablet market will be divided between Apple and Android, almost 50-50, with the scraps going to -- wait for it -- MeeGo! He doesn't see any room in the tablet market of the future for Microsoft, RIM or HP WebOS tablets.
My own prediction is that Munster is correct about Android -- if he is talking about the global market. But in the United States, I predict that Apple will maintain its tablet lead indefinitely. While iPads of the future are likely to come in only a small variety of form factors, the androids of the future will come in every conceivable shape, size and price. Very inexpensive android-based touch tablets will replace smart phones in poor countries as the de facto "PC platform" in emerging markets like China, India and elsewhere. Android tablets will come down to below $200, and Apple just isn't going to play there. And because of these huge numbers abroad, android tablets will dominate global market share.
I'm also a lot more bullish on the prospects for BlackBerry, Web OS, and even Microsoft-based tablets, and less optimistic about MeeGo, than Munster is. Both BlackBerry and Palm, at least before it was acquired by HP, were very much on the right track in developing multi-touch, physics and gestures (MPG) user interfaces. And if Microsoft can quickly develop a tablet platform based on the Windows phone seven user interface — and abandon its obsession with pen-based tablets that run desktop Windows — even Microsoft has a chance at significant market share.
Apple will continue to dominate tablets in the United States for four reasons. First, I believe Apple is the most committed to the form factor, and is willing to cannibalize its own lines of mobile devices because it believes in iOS. More people will use mobile computers as their main device, most mobile devices will be tablets, and most tablets will be iPads.
Second, I think it's reasonable to assume that iPad will have the most elegant, functional user interface in a category where the quality of the interface is by far the main consideration.
Third, Android tablets (and Android phones) will eventually suffer from choice paralysis. With dozens or even hundreds of varieties to choose from, ordinary consumers may feel paralyzed about which to buy. The solution for many will be to just buy an iPad, because it feels simple and they know apps will work right, they know where to find those apps.
And finally, a huge variety of form factors on the Android side and a very small number of iPad form factors will provide a much larger incentive for third-party innovation around the iPad. This in turn will make the iPad more attractive to consumers, who will be able to do a lot more with all those add-ons, cases, mounts, and opportunities to use the iPad as a controller.
It's also worth pointing out that in the world that Munster depicts, where Android is number one and iOS tablets are number two, Apple is still the winner. Why? Because Apple makes far more revenue from both direct sales of the iOS in its own hardware, from the hardware itself and from its incredibly lucrative apps business. So if you can imagine a world where Android has 50% of the tablet market, Apple has 30% and the remainder divided amongst the also-rans, Apple is likely to reap 90% of the revenues in the total tablet market.