In the weeks since the iPad launch, there’s been a spate of rumors, “leaks,” and PR pushes around would-be competitors to the Apple iPad. By the end of the year, consumers will be able to choose from an array of multimedia touchscreen tablets including tablets that:

  • Cost less: Asustek hasn’t said how much its Eee Pad, due out in Q3, will cost, but running Android (the OS of choice for a growing generation of netbooks, too) shaves off some software costs and Asus is known for its competitive pricing.
  • Do more: Several tablets, including the HP Slate and the Archos 9 pctablet (available now for $549), will be running Windows 7, which is designed with tablet-friendly functions like handwriting recognition. Both HP’s tablet and the Archos tablet have features the iPad doesn’t have, like Webcams and USB ports, and will be able to view any Web site that uses Flash, which the iPad doesn’t support.
  • Go open: Android tablets like the Dell Streak series will be able to access the growing body of Android apps and take advantage of Google’s open-standards-based operating system.
  • Change shape: We’re going to see some wacky products out there that defy neat form-factor categories, like the Lenovo IdeaPad U1 Hybrid, which is a Windows 7 notebook with a screen that pops out to be an 11.6” tablet running a Linux-based OS when undocked. Some fancy, high-end devices like the Fujitsu LifeBook combine laptop and tablet capabilities through Swivel.

 But there’s no guarantee that consumers will flock to any of these devices the way they flock to the iPad. Why? Two reasons. The iPad has:

  • Curation. The touchscreen tablet form factor limits what you can do with the device, but Apple turns this into a strength rather than a weakness. The iPhone OS centers the user experience around focused-functionality apps. The publisher chooses (curates) the content you see in any app. You can only do what the apps intend for you to do using a limited set of gestures (pan, pinch, tap). But these limitations make the experience manageable, and more than that, delightful. It’s not clear that the tablet experience will be as satisfying with a more open operating system.
  • Caché. Yes, anyone can buy an iPad, but the people who do buy one attract an awful lot of attention. Like the early adopters of the iPhone, they know they’re paying for a device that will be cheaper and have more features next year — but they’re willing to pay more for the status and satisfaction of owning one now. Will tablets from Dell or Asus have the same status appeal as the iPad? It’s doubtful, but that doesn’t mean they can’t carve out their own segment of the market.

What it means: Product strategists in the Windows ecosystem have been trying to make tablets succeed since 1992. It will take more than slapping an existing OS into a tablet form factor to make a successful device. For tablets to be a viable market beyond the iPad, they can’t just be netbooks without keyboards. Apple’s competitors must provide a differentiated experience that fits the form factor — or Apple will have NO competitors in the tablet market.

UPDATE 4/29: Post Palm acquisition, could HP make a stronger play with tablets based on Palm's Web OS? Ars Technica does a great analysis of how this could work.