Can Android tablets ever hope to compete with the iPad?

According to IHS iSuppli, during the second quarter of 2012 Apple shipped 17 million iPad 2 and 3 models, representing a colossal jump of 44.1 per cent from 11.8 million units in the first quarter. That feat translated into a market share gain of 11.5 per cent, boosting Apple’s Q2 global tablet share to 69.6 per cent, up from 58.1 per cent in Q1, which is the highest it’s been in over a year.

“Apple is making all the right moves to rebuild its dominant position in the tablet space,” said Rhoda Alexander, director of tablet and monitor research for IHS. “The company is pushing visual performance boundaries with the new iPad, while providing value customers with a lower-priced alternative, the iPad 2. With the expected entrance of the 7in version of the iPad in September, Apple is sending a clear message that it plans to dominate this market over the long term.”

This is bad news for Android. Granted, these figures don’t include Google’s recently launched Nexus 7 tablet, but they do factor in Amazon’s popular Kindle Fire device, which is likely to suffer the most from Google’s entrance into the slate arena (courtesy of Asus). For whatever reason, manufacturers simply have not been able to leverage Google’s open source platform to compete with Apple’s iPad in the full-size tablet space, and instead have had to focus on the less expensive 7in category. Even Google resigned itself to doing so when it pushed out the Nexus 7 in July.

If you’re a die-hard Android fan, this is a tough pill to swallow, and unfortunately it’s not as simple as blaming the disparity on Apple’s marketing wizardry and blind loyalty from a rabid fan base that will buy anything with a lowercase ‘i’ in front of it. Those factors may play a role, but they don’t explain how the iPad can so thoroughly dominate a category time and again.

So what gives?

Pinpointing the problem isn’t an easy thing to do, in large part because there’s probably multiple factors at play. One theory is that Android users are cheapskates, but such a blanket analysis isn’t fair to the scores of intelligent Android fans who understand that a device built around their open source platform shouldn’t cost as much as an iPad – not unless it brings something truly unique to the table, which hasn’t been the case.

IHS iSuppli believes the recipe for Apple’s success is that it was able to cook up a “well-developed ecosystem of content and applications” before it even entered the tablet market. If that’s the case, the future looks a little brighter for Android, which now has a robust ecosystem of its own to play in – but what happens if Apple launches an affordable iPad mini and encroaches on the 7in category, as has been rumoured for some time?

Don’t sweat it if you’re an Android fan. The iPad mini will be popular, no doubt, but I don’t see Apple matching Google’s £159 Nexus price tag, not when iPod touch devices start from about the same price. Getting back to IHS iSuppli’s point about the ecosystem, Google, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble figured out that hardware is only the key to unlocking content sales, which is where the real money is made.

Apple has this figured out as well, but still charges premium prices for its products. If anything, an iPad mini would motivate Google and other Android players to up the ante with more features while still undercutting Apple on price. That’s something to be excited about, and is, after all, what we all wanted to see happen in the 10in category.