Apple’s tablet rule more secure as HP drops webOS hardware

One of Apple’s (s aapl) tablet challengers — one that many initially thought might eventually become a force to be reckoned with — revealed Thursday that it would be leaving the field. HP (s hpq) won’t be making any more webOS-based tablets or smartphones, the company announced during its quarterly earnings report. That’s one less iPad competitor Apple needs to worry about.

When first unveiled by HP, the TouchPad showed a lot of promise, thanks in large part to the slick tablet-optimized version of webOS that powered it. Our own Kevin Tofel was genuinely impressed with the TouchPad in his testing of the device.

But it was also obviously not a runaway hit yet for HP. Reports suggested that it was selling only somewhere around 10 percent of its stock at Best Buy (s bby) locations, and HP instituted two big price drops already for the TouchPad even though it has only been on the market for two months. Apple’s iPads, in contrast, haven’t seen a price drop prior to a new model being introduced.

New numbers released Thursday revealed that world tablet sales are growing, even without the iPad included in those figures. But it’s not clear that the TouchPad helped spur any of that increase. And for HP, it’s likely that even a moderately successful device wouldn’t have generated acceptable margins at the price point it was eventually forced to set for the TouchPad. It’s still possible HP will attempt to license webOS to third-party hardware makers, but it can’t instill confidence in those device manufacturers that HP itself can’t make a go of it. Nor will developers be lining up to create software for the platform without a clear future for it.

Gartner (s it) didn’t see webOS as a significant threat to Apple’s tablet market share in the immediate future, predicting HP would take only three percent of the overall market by 2015, despite being one of only a handful of potentially viable competitors in play. The only true competitors to the iPad are Android tablets, and even those aren’t doing too well just yet, since tablet shipments overall from all manufacturers and platforms besides Apple only reach 5.6 million last quarter. Apple is also making headway against Android (s goog) tablets in court, which may help it stay out in front of the crowd of Google-backed devices for a while longer. After Android, the only other major alternative is the BlackBerry PlayBook (s rimm), and we all know that device is on shaky ground at best.

One thing’s for sure: Calling any bets regarding the tablet game is a sucker’s bet right now. HP and RIM have both performed pretty poorly using a unified hardware/software approach in coming up with iPad competitors. Add in Google purchasing Motorola(s mmi), which might indicate that the Android-maker is on the verge of trying the same thing, and it’s clear the landscape for tablets is undergoing rapid and unpredictable change. Despite the upheaval, however, the iPad remains a surefire winner.