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A customer uses an Apple iPad on the first day of U.S. sales.Paul Sakuma/The Associated Press

The tablet wars are coming, and they will be fierce.

Apple's massively popular iPad tablet - available only in the United States until now - goes on sale Friday in nine countries, including Canada. The international launch comes two days after Apple overtook Microsoft as the world's biggest technology firm by market capitalization, and marks the Cupertino, Calif., company's attempt to dominate a product category still in its infancy.

But behind the scenes, a slew of big-name technology companies - many of which learned important lessons from their attempts to catch up with Apple's iPhone in the smart phone race - are working on their own touch-screen mobile computers. They are investing millions, although it's still unclear how people will use tablets, or where.

Staffers who've played with the iPad since the U.S. launch list their favourite apps

"[iPads are]primarily used as for Web browsing, multimedia and as a game device - that's 99 per cent of the use today, but will be less than 50 per cent in three years," said Deloitte Canada technology analyst Duncan Stewart. "They're going to become business tools … Instead of having magazines in the lobby, a business will have a couple of tablets; instead of store salespeople with paper catalogues, they'll carry tablets.

"The consensus has moved from 'these things will sell in the single-digit millions' to 'these things will sell in the double-digit millions, and could they sell in the triple-digit millions?'"

Tablets aren't new. Apple introduced a handheld computer, the Newton, in the 1990s, with little success. This time, however, the iPad is riding a massive wave of consumer enthusiasm set off by the success of the iPod and the iPhone.

Much as it did with those products, Apple has captured consumers' imaginations with the iPad and built an early lead in the market.

Read Globetechnology's iPad review from April

Competition is coming, although the exact lineup of challengers has yet to be determined. Since Apple launched the iPad in early April, both Microsoft and HP have put their tablet plans on hold. Microsoft may have reconsidered the idea of its original concept - a dual-screen reader, that would open like a book. HP probably wanted to incorporate technology acquired as part of its recent purchase of Palm, the smart phone maker. Both are expected to try again.

Dell is set to release its own tablet - running on Google's Android operating system - in Britain next month. Google is also widely expected to release a tablet of its own, following its acquisition earlier this year of a Toronto startup that specializes in user interfaces for touch-screen devices. Many smaller companies also have tablets in the works.

"The experience of the iPhone woke up manufacturers beyond the mobile industry," said Tony Olvet, vice-president of communications research at IDC Canada. "Everyone from Dell to HP are saying, 'Okay, we don't want to miss the boat on this market.'"

Google's Android operating system may have the best chance to overtake Apple in terms of market share, given the sheer number of tablet devices that are expected to employ it. However, while multiple products running Android may eventually constitute a bigger portion of the market than the iPad, Apple's gadget may still be the single best-selling product, Mr. Stewart notes.

This week's international launch will provide analysts with their first look at the iPad's reception outside the U.S., where a million iPads were sold in its first month on the market. The U.S. numbers were impressive because people are still debating where the iPad will be used most often - in the living room, the coffee shop or the morning commute.

"Consumers don't have a preconceived notion that they need this device; they have to be taught to want this device, and Apple is the best positioned company to teach them to want a tablet," said Sarah Rotman Epps, a consumer product strategy analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "Part of their innovation is that they completely ignore what consumers want and deliver what Apple thinks they should want."

If the tablet eventually finds its niche as a sort of superpowered universal remote control and media hub in the living room, Apple's competitors may be able to take advantage of the company's relatively weak position in some areas of home entertainment, Ms. Rotman Epps said. Microsoft and Sony already have a significant presence in the living room in the form of gaming systems, TVs and other devices - which they can readily sync with their own tablet products - while Apple does not.

"If the tablet could be a device that integrates more closely with the television and accessories like gaming consoles, I think that there's opportunity for another company to one-up Apple, if they do it right," Ms. Rotman Epps said.