Are we too hard on Apple's iPad rivals?

HP's TouchPad, RIM's PlayBook and Samsung's Galaxy Tab are the latest in the parade of rivals targeting Apple's iPad. The problem is that the rivals are dealing in a market where most folks think the iPad is the tablet market.

It's another day and another rival to Apple's iPad to consider. This tablet parade is getting a bit packed. HP has its TouchPad queued up. Samsung has its 10-inch Galaxy Tab on the market. Research in Motion shipped 500,000 PlayBooks in its most recent quarter. And everyone ranging from Acer to Huawei has some sort of tablet on the runway.

The targets are all the same: Apple. The mission is to be a solid No. 2. Fortunately, we get to play with these new tablets as they come out. Samsung's Galaxy Tab has the hardware, improved software and features to appeal to folks that want something other than the iPad. In fact, the Galaxy Tab works fine for me. I check email, surf the Web and play Angry Birds. I'm a simpleton. For my use case, there are multiple tablets that could fit my needs.

However, it's a bit hard to notice that everyone I saw over a laptop-free weekend called the Galaxy Tab the iPad. The iPad is like the Xerox machine. We all know that there are copiers, but Xerox took the title and ran with it. To most folks, the iPad equals the tablet market. And rightly so: Apple was there first, created a form factor and priced its wares so aggressively that rivals can't undercut the iPad.

This inescapable fact colors every tablet that hits the market. If you never touched an iPad, these rival devices would seem pretty neat. Unfortunately for the rivals, Apple has built a big iPad ecosystem while apps for Google's Android tablets, RIM's PlayBook and HP's WebOS will be lacking in raw numbers. You want to cut the rivals a break just for the storyline, but in many tablet buying decisions the iPad wins.

And then there's price. Given the best these Apple rivals can do is price their devices the same as Apple---a $499 starter price---you're left with the following question: If you're paying the same price why wouldn't you stick with the best tablet app ecosystem?

Those issues are why Jason Perlow can proclaim the HP TouchPad (right)  dead on arrival and James Kendrick figured that rivals are already on their last stand vs. Apple. I see HP's TouchPad as an enterprise playReviews of the Galaxy Tab were similar: Nice device, but not quite up to par with the iPad.

Now if the 10-inch Galaxy Tab were $300 you'd look over the imperfections in a hurry. Ditto for the HP TouchPad. But that's a money-losing proposition for the vendors. The challenge is that you either have to outperform the iPad or beat it on price. Any tie goes to Apple. It's like an incumbent politician who has built in advantages at the start of a campaign.

If you couple the aforementioned challenges with simple word of mouth and you quickly see how Apple has its iPad franchise nicely defended. Most IT folks are also family influencers. People consistently ask you what to buy. Short of avoiding iTunes or loving Flash, it's hard to find a good reason to tell someone to skip the iPad for any of the rivals. What would you tell your mom to buy? Unless rivals elbow their way into that recommendation it's hard to see them competing with the iPad.

What about the enterprise? RIM talked up a bevy of enterprise pilots, but SAP's statistics probably tell the tale. As of late April SAP was testing 200 PlayBooks, but had 4,000 iPads deployed. SAP and RIM are tight partners. HP will also get its share of deployments and pilots. But winning over a company may not be much different than a tablet recommendation to a relative. You need good word of mouth and "almost as good" isn't much of a selling point.