Are Tablets Becoming a One-Horse Race?

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Some things never change. In February I said, "Apple (NAS: AAPL) iPad is the clear winner in the tablet wars. ... The remaining horses in this race largely appear to be high-risk, high-reward long shots." A lot has happened in the tablet wars since then, but one thing hasn't changed: The iPad still rules. 

Another one (iPad wannabe) drops its price
Little more than a month after the July 1 introduction of Hewlett-Packard's (NYS: HPQ) TouchPad tablet, the company has permanently dropped the price of the entry-level model by 20%, from $499.99 to $399.99. That's quite an about-face for HP, which spent $1.2 billion to acquire Palm last year in hopes of beefing up its smartphone and tablet offerings. The company took its time putting the finishing touches on the TouchPad to get it right. Management expressed optimism earlier this year that its then-unreleased TouchPad tablet would help improve the PC division's growth and earnings.

HP seemed to be testing the lower price in early August with widely available instant discounts of $100 -- including at HP's online store. That can't bode well for margins, given that it was priced to match iPad prices and Apple CEO Steve Jobs has said his company is pricing aggressively.

HP isn't the first iPad wannabe to cut prices. Motorola Mobility (NYS: MMI) priced its Xoom Android tablet at a premium to the iPad when it launched in February but has since reduced its prices. Nonetheless, management expects Xoom shipments to decline this quarter... though that may be at least somewhat related to an upcoming product refresh.

How do you like them apples?
Apple said on its July earnings call that it's selling iPads as fast as it can make them. Retail stores sometimes have trouble keeping them in stock. The company is working to expand its iPad manufacturing capacity.

In contrast, a recent Wall Street Journal article noted that iPad competitors focus on the number of tablets they've shipped but won't discuss the number that are being sold. The difference is crucial: Some industry watchers say so many iPad wannabes are sitting in "the channel" that price cuts are needed to move them out.

What about the other horses in this race? Research In Motion (NAS: RIMM) seemed to have high hopes for the PlayBook tablet it launched in April, but indications so far are that the PlayBook is a dud. Dell's (NAS: DELL) Streak tablets and Lenovo's ThinkPad and IdeaPad tablets often don't even warrant a mention in articles on tablets. Sony's (NYS: SNE) Android-based S1 and S2 have unique designs that have received encouraging reviews, but they aren't due out until this fall.

Did the second horse just get injured?
Samsung Electronics was early to launch an iPad alternative, the Android-based Galaxy Tab. It appears to be the only other horse worth watching in this race, with millions of units shipped. But that momentum may not last: Apple has sued Samsung for patent infringement in a number of regions, including the United States, Australia, and Europe. On Aug. 9, a German court banned Samsung from distributing its Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet in Europe, pending a hearing scheduled for Aug. 25.

This dust tastes like... dirt
Why is the iPad leaving other tablets eating its dust? When NVIDIA's (NAS: NVDA) CEO said last May that Android tablets weren't selling well, he explained: 

It's a point-of-sales problem. It's an expertise-at-retail problem. It's a marketing problem to consumers. It is a price-point problem. And it's a software richness of content problem.

He also said he believed the problems were getting solved, with tablet manufacturers adjusting their plans and Best Buy setting up a dedicated location called Tablet Central. (NVIDIA's Tegra 2 chip is the brains behind both the Motorola Xoom and Samsung's Galaxy Tab 10.1.)

Foolish takeaway
Evidence suggests that Apple remains a clear winner in the tablet wars. The iPhone and iPod demonstrate Apple's ability to fight off competition: The iPad could make it a triple crown. The remaining horses in this race largely appear to be high-risk, high-reward long shots.

How do you think the tablet wars will play out? An easy way to stay on top of market developments is The Motley Fool's free new My Watchlist feature. You can get up-to-date news and analysis by adding these stocks to your Watchlist now:

At the time this article was published Fool contributorCindy Johnsonowns no shares of any stock mentioned in this story. The Motley Fool owns shares of Research In Motion, Apple, and Best Buy.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Apple, NVIDIA, and Best Buy, writing puts in NVIDIA, and creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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