It was all so uncomplicated at the end of 2010. There was Apple‘s (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad, and that was it.
Sure, there were other tablets out there — a legion of cheap, barely functioning handhelds struggling to run Google‘s (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android or Microsoft‘s (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows operating systems — but with the exception of Samsung‘s (PINK:SSNLF) Galaxy Tab, none had a chance to compete. It’s not as though the Galaxy Tab was a success, either. While Samsung touted more than 2 million in sales by the end of December 2010, reports said that 16% of those Galaxy Tabs were returned to retailers.
The market got crowded fast. By the time Apple introduced its second model of iPad in March 2011, every technology company and their uncles were announcing tablets. Motorola Mobility (NYSE:MMI) already had released its new Xoom; Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) was promising its new PlayBook within a few months; Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) was set to deliver its WebOS-powered TouchPad; Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) was cooking up Windows and Android tablets; and a slightly older, slightly smarter Samsung was plotting to revamp its Galaxy Tab.
Even with the new variety, the tablet market looks much the same here at the end of 2011. There’s the iPad and then there’s everything else. However, for the first time, Apple’s armor is starting to show chinks, and there’s space for competitors to strike against the Cupertino, Calif.-based company. So who in the tablet market will still be standing in 2012? Here’s a look:
Casualty: Research In Motion’s BlackBerry PlayBook
The BlackBerry PlayBook, originally announced in October 2010, was delayed multiple times because of rumored problems with battery life and the operating system. After a shaky debut in April 2011, though, it really seemed like RIM’s tablet had a shot. RIM sold around 500,000 PlayBooks between April and June. It was the first tablet to receive Federal Information Processing Standard certification, meaning that government agencies could start using PlayBooks.
Sales slowed to a trickle by fall, though, and unsold PlayBook stock is costing RIM $485 million. If RIM takes another shot at the tablet market, it won’t be in 2012 and it won’t be with the PlayBook.
Casualty: Hewlett-Packard TouchPad
Hewlett-Packard’s TouchPad was such a monumental failure at retail that the company announced it was bowing out of the mobile market entirely just six weeks after the device was released. But a strange thing happened after that: The TouchPad started selling out. Retailers like Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) began liquidating stock, selling the TouchPad at $99. HPQ backpedaled after that, saying it planned to release a new Windows tablet sometime in 2012.
As of now, though, HP’s plans in the tablet market remain murky. New CEO Meg Whitman remains noncommittal to the company’s place in the market. She told The Verge that HP will make another tablet using WebOS, but not in 2012. Don’t expect the TouchPad or HPQ to be in the tablet game next year.
Casualty: Sony Tablet S
Sony (NYSE:SNE) released a tablet of its own this fall, the enigmatically named Sony Tablet S. Unlike other competitors in the market, consumers and industry analysts alike have ignored it. The Tablet S has received positive reviews from outlets like The Wall Street Journal and Engadget, but the device’s high price tag — a 16GB Tablet S is the same $499 as an iPad — has guaranteed average consumer indifference toward it.
Unlike RIM and HPQ, it’s likely Sony will announce new tablets next year, but the Tablet S shouldn’t reach its first birthday.
Survivor: Apple iPad
Apple’s device isn’t going anywhere. Word is that Apple plans to release its latest iPad as soon as February, at least according to Citi analyst Richard Gardner. The iPad 3 is rumored to sport a new high-resolution screen akin to the Retina Display screen used in the iPhone 4S.
There also are rumors that Apple plans to diversify the iPad product line with a cheaper model. Much like when Apple introduced the smaller, cheaper iPod Nano to diversify its line of media players last decade, Ticonderoga Securities analyst Brian White says that Apple will release an iPad with less horsepower in the “mid-to-high $200 range” next year.
Survivor: Amazon Kindle Fire
Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) came into the tablet market swinging in November. Its Kindle Fire device undercut the iPad by $300 and made waves with consumers. Wall Street analysts project the company will sell 3 million to 5 million tablets before the end of December. However, the device has come under fire from a number of critics in recent weeks, voicing complaints about a lack of privacy features, a finicky touchscreen and a poor web browser. But Amazon promises to address all these concerns in an upcoming software update.
The company isn’t resting either. Word out of Taiwan is that Amazon will deliver two new Kindle Fire models during the second quarter of 2012.
As of this writing, Anthony John Agnello did not own a position in any of the stocks named here. Follow him on Twitter at @ajohnagnello and become a fan of InvestorPlace on Facebook. Check out InvestorPlace.com’s other looks back at 2011 and ahead to 2012 here.