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Cluttered tablet market: Has Apple left a lot of room for rivals to grow?

Tablets were supposed to be a simple alternative to the bloated personal computer market. And when “tablet” was synonymous with “iPad,” that was true.

Look at the tablets available online or at a consumer electronics store and it can be dizzying to choose from among the dozens of slim rectangles with touch screens – each with various sizes, features, prices and applications.

Tablets were supposed to be a simple alternative to the bloated personal computer market. And when “tablet” was synonymous with “iPad,” that was true.

But this is the first holiday season in which the iPad faces competitors that have built up a solid footing in the market. Amazon and Google introduced tablets just in time for the shopping rush. As a result, many consumers and analysts say, the new market of keyboardless computers is quickly becoming as confusing as that of the old-school PC.

“What’s different about this holiday season is that consumers have not just more choice, but really good choices,” said Sarah Rotman Epps, who studies consumer computing trends at Forrester. “There have been many iPad wannabes but no real quality alternatives, and now there are several.”

While choice is a good thing for consumers, she said, it also makes shopping “confusing and complicated.”

For the companies that make tablets, the choice means everything. The stakes are much higher than the sale of individual devices. Each company is trying to snag lifelong customers for their other products – like music, apps, e-books, movies, Web search or word-processing software.

While Apple has dominated the market until now, selling more tablets than any other company, its perch is being threatened by the newcomers.

“Apple left a lot of room for rivals to grow,” said Tero Kuittinen, an independent mobile analyst.

By keeping its tablet prices so high, he said, Apple could lose its place as the biggest tablet seller, just as it did with smartphones when it lost the first-place position to Samsung, which makes less expensive phones using Google’s Android software. The iPad still dominates the market with a 50 percent share, according to third-quarter figures from the research firm IDC, but that is down from 60 percent a year ago. Samsung is in second place with an 18 percent share, Amazon is third with 9 percent, and Asus, which makes Google’s Nexus 7 tablet, is in fourth with 8.6 percent of the market.

But Google, which makes the vast majority of its revenue on Web ads, still lags in the tablet market, even though sales of its Nexus 7 tablet are approaching 1 million a month, according to Asus. About 98 percent of Web traffic from tablets comes from iPads, according to Onswipe, a digital publishing company. Google would like more of that traffic, as well as more buyers for apps and media from its Google Play store, as would Amazon and Microsoft.

“The first decision you make is what ecosystem am I in, do I want the Android Play store and content or some other?” said Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google’s vice president for engineering for Android. “So the importance of the ecosystem can’t be overstated.”

But the decisions after that are still complex.

Say, for example, that you want a tablet that runs Google’s Android operating system. There is the Nexus 7, a seven-inch tablet made by Asus, and the Nexus 10, a 10-inch tablet made by Samsung. Then there are the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 (not to be confused with the Samsung Galaxy Note 2, a 5.5-inch smartphone). And that’s not to mention the dozens of Android tablets made by Lenovo, Toshiba and others

 

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