Tablet troubles: Can anyone challenge Apple?

This afternoon Apple is expected to announce record iPad sales. At the same time sales of competing tablets seem to be falling short of lofty expectations. Why can't anyone build a better tablet?

This afternoon, when Apple reports its latest quarterly results, the company is expected to announce record iPad sales. Analysts predict that Apple sold more than 7.7 million tablets in the first full quarter since the March introduction of the iPad 2.

At the same time, sales of competing tablets seem to be falling short of lofty expectations. At the beginning of the year forecasts for tablets were running as high as 70-80 million units. The category is still growing quickly (from a tiny installed base), but over the past couple of weeks I've heard several companies and market research firms suggest that total sales may come in closer to 60 million units. IDC, which has been more conservative, may turn out to be closest. Earlier this month the firm slightly raised its estimate for 2011 sales to 53.5 million tablets. Yesterday RIM was forced to deny rumors that sales of the PlayBook have been so slow that the company may cease production of the WiFi version (the 4G version has been delayed until the fall).

The first wave of competing tablets-from the Android 3.0 Honeycomb tablets such as the Motorola Xoom to RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook to HP's webOS-powered TouchPad--have received lukewarm reviews. Even those that get solid reviews seem to run into shipping delays or technical glitches. Toshiba's Thrive tablet, for example, sometimes fails to wake up from sleep (the company is promising a fix).

Mediocre reviews aside, there are lots of explanations for the slow start. First, rival tablets were priced too high putting them head-to-head with the superior iPad 2, though that could be changing with lower-priced devices on the way such as Vizio's VTAB and Archos's G9 series. Second, other tablets can't match the iOS application ecosystem and support for Adobe Flash content hasn't turned out to be the killer app RIM and others expected. Third, the competition lacks a compelling retail channel like the Apple Store to promote its tablets. Finally, the failure of Intel and Microsoft to come up with a compelling tablet platform to date has left device makers to try to market Windows tablets as niche products for business.

Perhaps these are just growing pains, and the introduction of thinner and cheaper tablets, with a broader selection of apps, will quickly turn things around. It took a while for Android smartphones to catch on too (remember those T-Mobile G1 reviews?). But it could also be that Apple has built an insurmountable lead in tablets.

What do you think competitors need to do to top the iPad? Tell me in Talkback below.