Apple has made a fortune in recent years by being first to market with new types of technologies, leaving the rest of the tech world to play catch-up. The iPod is one example, the iPhone another. Computer companies are scrambling to build all-in-one desktop computers similar to the popular iMac. Music and media companies are trying (and failing) to create online media stores as good as the iTunes Music Store, and cell phone and gadget companies are working overtime to create app stores but are still being left in the dust.
When it comes to the Apple iPad, however, other companies are actually ahead of the game for once and may actually steal the lion's share of the market this time around. Whether it was years of speculation that Apple was going to release a tablet or just better recognition of where the gadget market was going, companies like HTC, Lenovo, Sony, Toshiba, Acer, Dell, Archos and countless others are pretty much ready to launch their own versions of the iPad. Finally, a real competition to own a piece of the market.
And Apple has a few strikes against it right off the top. For one thing the iPad is for a captive audience only, no third-party software will be available for it unless you go through the company's tortuous App approval process. For another, it runs a proprietary operating system (pretty much the same as the iPhone) that prevents things like multitasking or using the productivity software of your choice. There's no video conferencing or VOIP ability. You can't plug it into your phone to access the 3G network on the go, you have to buy your own iPad account. You can't use open source formats for movies, music or e-books and it doesn't do Flash, which means the overall web experience is lacking.
On the plus side they have Apple's superior design, a huge App store and core of enterprising App developers to draw on, a great reputation, huge amounts of industry buzz after introducing the iPad in January, great battery life and a pretty good price point that's going to be hard for other companies to beat.
Other companies, however, probably have an advantage when you look closely at the features. Many will be able to run a version of Windows 7 Lite and all the Windows-compatible software out there (including iTunes) or a choice of Google Chrome OS, Google Android, Linux, etc. Many have features like cameras for video conferencing, allow third party software and apps, allow Flash, allow you to swap out your own battery, come with USB ports and will play pretty much any file you choose.