Motorola, RIM, Samsung Driving Tablet 'Tipping Point' in 2011

All the data is pointing to a killer year-or few years-for media tablets, with Apple, Samsung, Motorola and RIM expected to lead the market.

Apple, Motorola, Samsung and other vendors are fueling a trend that will mark 2011 as a "tipping point" for tablet sales, consultancy Deloitte said in a Jan. 18 report, echoing findings released the same day by research firm IDC and investment firm Raymond James. By all accounts, tablet shipments are headed skyward.

The worldwide media tablet market reached 4.8 million units in the third quarter of 2010, up 55 from the previous quarter and 45.1 percent from the third quarter of 2009, IDC reported. Setting the standard, Apple shipped nearly 4.2 million iPads during the third quarter, claiming 87.4 percent of the worldwide market share. (While considerable, this was lower than Strategy Analytics' Nov. 2 estimate, which gave 95.5 percent of the market to Apple.)

IDC expects tablet growth to "accelerate significantly" during the first quarter of 2011, as new products from high-end vendors come to market. Among these will be the Motorola Xoom, based on Google's tablet-friendly Android 3.0 operating system (known as "Honeycomb") and Research In Motion's BlackBerry PlayBook, running RIM's BlackBerry Tablet OS.

"The media tablet market's rapid evolution will continue to accelerate [during the fourth quarter of 2010] and beyond with new product and service introductions, channel expansion, price competition and experimentation with new-use cases among consumers and enterprises," Susan Kevorkian, IDC's research director of mobile-connected devices, said in a statement.

Deloitte also pointed to enterprises as a contributor to increased tablet sales.

"Although some commentators view tablets as underpowered media-consumption toys suitable only for consumers ... in 2011, more than 25 percent of all tablet computers will be bought by enterprises, and that figure is likely to rise in 2012 and beyond," Deloitte said in its annual sector forecast, according to Reuters.

Deloitte added that health care and retail markets alone could account for sales of 5 million tablets this year, with total 2011 tablet sales expected to reach 50 million units.

IDC similarly estimated sales of 44.6 million units for the year-with U.S. sales accounting for 40 percent of the total-and rising to 70.8 million units in 2012.

Raymond James analysts, offering a spreadsheet that investors can use to keep track of the dozens of tablet competitors headed to market (at January's 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, Hewlett-Packard Executive Vice President Todd Bradley put the number of tablets on display at 96), said they believe a few companies are particularly well-positioned for success. They include HP, Motorola, RIM and Samsung.

Motorola, set for a first-quarter launch, according to a source, "could initially ship as many as 1 million units," accelerated, in part, by the Honeycomb OS, wrote Raymond James analyst Brian Alexander. Enhancements to the OS, Alexander noted, appear to include "improved Web browsing ... Google e-books, improved Gmail layout, redesigned YouTube interface, video chat and 3-D maps to name a few."

Additionally, Raymond James analysts expect Apple's iOS to be a near-term leader, but for Android to ultimately lead in market share. Still, it has high hopes for two non-Android users.

At its planned Feb. 9 event, HP is expected to introduce a number of smartphones and tablets running WebOS (a netbook is also rumored to be included), and to outline its "connected devices vision," of which WebOS will be at the heart.

"We view WebOS as a very competitive operating system and believe that HP's brand name, expansive customer base and world-class supply chain position the company for success in the tablet market," wrote Alexander. Raymond James expects Apple to address the iPad's "shortcomings"-boosting its processor and memory, including a camera, etc.-in the next generation of the device, he adds. "We view the Samsung Galaxy Tab (upgraded to LTE [Long-Term Evolution] connectivity), BlackBerry PlayBook and Motorola Zoom as the tablets best positioned to compete with the iPad."

Also expected to benefit from the growing tablet market, according to Raymond James analysts, are flash memory vendor SanDisk; chip vendors Micron, Nvidia and Atmel; and camera maker OmniVision.