Thursday, July 21, 2011 at 11:31 pm.

Why Apple will dominate the tablet market for years

iPad launch day at the Fifth Ave. Apple Store, NYC

Many in the tech world believe that Google will quickly grow to dominate the tablet market the way Android quickly grew to dominate the smartphone market.

Well, it’s not happening yet. Today at Daring Fireball, John Gruber used recent Android platform data to estimate that there are about 1.35 million Android tablets in use, compared to about 29 million iPads sold to date. His broader point: There isn’t any evidence yet to suggest that Android will give Apple any serious competition.

Yes, plenty of companies are investing in building and marketing Android tablets, but it appears that relatively few consumers have shown any interest in buying them.

One big reason that I think the tablet market will play out differently than the smartphone market is distribution: People buy tablets at different places and using different shopping strategies than they buy smartphones.

As I wrote in February:

The fundamental difference between the tablet market and the smartphone market is distribution.

Whereas smartphone distribution is dominated by wireless carriers, we expect carriers to play a relatively small role in tablet distribution. Tablet sales will be centered around electronics retail — the Apple store, Best Buy, Walmart — and big e-commerce, and not around carrier stores.

In mid-January, we asked Business Insider readers, “If you were going to buy a tablet, where would you buy it from?” Only 6% said they would buy from a carrier retail store or website. Meanwhile, 51% said they would buy it from an Apple retail store or Apple.com — where they only sell iPads. Another 24% said they would buy from Best Buy, Walmart, other retail, or associated e-commerce.

(That is, in part, because we believe that most people will not want to sign 2-year wireless data contracts for tablets, and therefore won’t care as much about carrier-subsidized pricing. So while carriers have taken it upon themselves to start supporting tablets like crazy, we don’t think they will ultimately do much of the tablet selling.)

So let’s walk through the typical tablet-buying routine.

If you go into the Apple store, you know what to expect — big tables with iPads laid out to play with. Either you’ll buy one or you won’t.

In a Best Buy or Walmart, we assume you’ll see a shelf with iPads and a few other tablets set up for demo. The iPad hardware and software will likely be nicer than the competition, and if the salesperson is trained, they’ll be able to explain that Apple’s apps and media ecosystem is still the best. (Apple should continue to have the best commercials and marketing, too.)

Then it will come down to price. We believe Apple will continue to price the iPad aggressively so it does not lose this market to cheap, inferior competitors.

Gruber makes a similar argument today:

The fundamental difference I see between smartphones and tablets is that mobile phones were an existing and long-standing market prior to the iPhone. Apple’s stated goal in 2007 was to get 1 percent of the total mobile phone market by the end of 2008. Most people today still buy phones the same way they did in 2006: they go to their local mobile carrier store and buy whatever the sales staff there convinces them to buy. Over 100 million times, that’s been an Android phone. I see no sign, though, that phone carriers are having any more success selling tablets than they ever were selling anything other than phones. Remember carrier-subsidized netbooks?

Distribution is a huge deal, and so far, it doesn’t look like consumers are buying tablets the way they buy smartphones.

If that continues, it will play out to Apple’s advantage, especially in places where it has Apple retail stores.

I think that over time, Android tablets will pick up some of the market, especially in parts of the world where Apple isn’t strong. But I don’t think it will be anything like Android’s meteoric rise in smartphones, which has been almost entirely the result of carrier distribution.

Related: Just like that, the iPad is already bigger than the Mac