…could things go a lot more quietly, the way of the MP3 player market and total Apple / iPod dominance instead?

GigaOM was quick to point out 5 Problems With Gartner’s Tablet Forecast, among them:

Apple’s iPad is poised to continue its overwhelming lead in tablet sales until 2015, holding 47.1 percent of the market according to research firm Gartner. Google’s Android tablets will slowly catch up to nab 38.6 percent of sales by then, while media slates built upon platforms such as MeeGo, QNX and webOS will barely be a blip on the radar, accounting for just a combined 14 percent of tablet sales four years from now. On the surface, these predictions may sound logical, but upon closer inspection, there’s more wrong than right here.

1) 2015 is at least two (or more) product cycles away. [...] While the iPad may not see monumental design changes each year, Apple is sure to evolve the device several times in the next four years. The same holds true for other tablet makers using different platforms. Simply put: It’s too early to predict what the tablet market will look like several device iterations from now due to powerful new processors on the way, faster mobile broadband in wider coverage areas and improvements in mobile software and apps.

While I agree that the Gartner study is making way too many assumptions overall, some of the rosier projections for Android (including Gartner’s own forecast of near 40% share by 2015) are probably having the same issue:

1) The only thing that we know with relative certainty is that Apple has put up a huge lead, and has become the uncontested category leader. If past experience is any guide (study your Ries & Trout on Positioning), that should put it on track to retain 50% share at a minimum, but quite possibly more (60-70%).

2) Especially since Apple went all out on pricing the entry-level $499 iPad so competitively, that the first few would-be competitors couldn’t even begin to catch up with Apple in that regard. Only now are e.g. Samsung rolling out an Android 2.2 tablet in a Wi-Fi model for $349 (April 10), which is priced below the $499 “price anchor” Wifi iPad/iPad 2.

But this is hardly a direct price beat, given that we are talking about a 7″ screen size tablet, not running the latest Android 3.0 “Honeycomb” OS optimized for tablet use (and it may not ever get the upgrade to it), and not fully up to snuff to the iPad’s build quality. So that consumers may well view this price in line with expectations for the different form factors.

3) That’s how strong Apple’s lessons learned from their iPod mass-market device manufacturing have been. Which brings up the legitimate question of whether the tablet market will turn out more like the MP3 player market than the smartphone one:

It all hinges on the question of how much Apple bungled things by staying with AT&T exclusivity for too long. What if there had been a Verizon iPhone (and Sprint and T-mobile as well) by the X-mas shopping season 2008? Would Android have even stood a chance? Would it have surpassed iPhone share as it did by now?

Since the carrier lock-in factor is almost a non-issue for tablets (the trend has been toward the Wifi-only versions anyway), Android has no such help in tablets.

4) Another thing missing: The ingenious “Droid” counter-branding to the iPhone’s own deep Archetype Branding that lifted the sale of all Android smartphones, whether intended or not, doesn’t appear to be crossing over into the Android tablet market.

Motorola created a brand with the Droid that was smartly capturing the few remaining archetypes that Apple had not employed:  Mainly “The Outlaw” (unrepentant, dangerous, bad) and “The Titan” (greatest strength, number, expanse) archetypes inherent in the allusion to the Terminator robotic eye, and to robots in general.

Symbols of “bad boy, take-no-prisoners machine”, combining within itself “the greatest strength”. To quote the original ads: “In a world that doesn’t, Droid does…”.

It appears that Motorola, Samsung, Acer, et al. are starting nearly from scratch in this regard in terms of the tablet market (which may be their biggest mistake yet, because they could have easily pushed the Droid branding into the tablet realm as well, it’s not too far of a brand extension), and so far I have not seen a break-out branding concept from any of them.

5) Much has already been written about the retail display advantage that the iPad currently has vs. the Xoom and other would-be competitors, another area that is quite different from the mobile carrier retail situation with smartphones:

Of course they are the only tablets on display at the Apple Stores, but they also visually dominate at non-exclusive retail outlets such as Best Buy, where the iPads sit on display with the rest of Apple’s shiny “tech-marvel” products, while the Xoom sits somewhere off to the side crammed in with a variety of netbooks and other cheaper fare…

All in all, those are a lot of advantages for the iPad. And any would-be competitors clearly have their work cut out for them if they are hoping to get even close to the 40% share predicted by Gartner for Android. Not to speak of the smaller challengers like HP’s TouchPad with its own WebOS (from the acquisition of Palm), or Blackberry/RIM’s Playbook, who’s only hope appears to be to make a play through entrenched enterprise computing relationships.

For more on my early predictions on iPad’s category leadership due to competitors missing the boat on getting their offerings out quickly enough, see: Is the iPad a fine young cannibal?