New Wi-Fi Tablets: Too Little, Too Late?

Over the next four weeks, at least three new tablets are expected from Samsung, Motorola (s mmi), and Research In Motion (s rimm). The good news? They’re Wi-Fi only, which will keep their cost down and appeal to consumers looking to avoid high-priced tablets or lengthy carrier commitments for mobile broadband data plans. Now, the bad news: Their timing isn’t great, which will likely dampen sales. Plus, WiFi-only pretty much eliminates them as contenders for desirable devices with integrated 3G.

First a quick run-through of what devices are expected, when and how much. Samsung’s Galaxy Tab, likely the most popular 7-inch Android tablet to date, may finally arrive in a Wi-Fi model on April 4 for $399. Droid-Life received the launch info from a Samsung representative, which shows that Tab will still be running a customized version of Android 2.2 (s goog) , not Honeycomb on the small screen. Droid-Life also found the Xoom Wi-Fi edition in a Staples circular (s spls), showing a launch date of March 27 and a $599 price tag. Finally, the CrackBerry web site found an April 17 date for RIM’s PlayBook, which company representatives have told me will be competitively priced around $500.

While none of these launch dates or price tags have officially been confirmed by the companies, the information is in line with my own expectations. That’s good, because we’ve already seen data points suggesting consumers generally don’t want to spend upwards of $800 for what amounts to a companion device. Many of our readers have commented that the $799 price tag for a Xoom isn’t desirable, for example. And a recent survey by the Institute for Mobile Markets Research asked consumers who were already “very or extremely interested” in a tablet purchase how much they’d consider paying: $351 was the magic number to buy, while $524 landed in the “would never pay that much” grouping.

But price matching, or at least getting it in the ballpark of Apple’s $499 iPad (s aapl) entry point, is only a step in the right direction. For roughly the same amount of money, the three new tablets show potential purchase barriers to the average mainstream consumer. All are essentially unproven contenders in the tablet market. Google’s Honeycomb and RIM’s QNX rely on new operating systems that have learning curves and offer far fewer optimized applications. By comparison, Apple’s iPad has a far lower learning curve as it leverages the same operating system and user interface used on its iPhone since 2007. And while consumers may initially look at specs, or “what the device is,” they’ll quickly focus on apps and experience, or the “what it can do” factor.

Then there’s the issue of timing, because each tablet — and subsequent devices from LG, HTC and others — no longer competes with Apple’s original, but instead faces the new iPad 2. The device is only an evolutionary upgrade, but even as someone who sold the first iPad for an Android tablet, you can see my candid positive reaction to the new iPad design as I held the device for the first time. Simply put: iPad 2 has the consumer mindshare right now, not to mention the sales momentum. Reports peg iPad 2 sales between 700,000 and 1 million units in the first weekend.

Just to be clear: I’m not married to any particular brand or operating system when it comes to tablets, or smartphones, for that matter. Those competing against Apple in the tablet market are finally taking the right steps by bringing less expensive tablets that don’t rely on carriers. Our own poll shows that three out of four people prefer a Wi-Fi tablet. But this move is only the first of many needed for any company to dethrone Apple as the once and future king of consumer tablets, and it puts pressure on Google to rally developers at its upcoming I/O developer event in May. Until then, iPads will keep outselling its tablet peers — Wi-Fi models or not.