In a short amount of time, Apple has come to dominate the consumer tablet market and make increasing inroads into the enterprise space. When the first iPad was unveiled, competitors were caught flat-footed. Microsoft’s relatively innovative Tablet PC platform suddenly looked clunky and overpriced, while every other hardware and software manufacturer attempted to launch a “me too” tablet with fruitless results.

Google’s Android OS led the “me too” pack, with everything from overpriced and under-featured tablets to inexpensive, low-grade options that were sold at pharmacies next to the chips and cigarettes. Even HP and RIM had a brief foray into the tablet frontier, but HP abandoned the space and RIM’s PlayBook was quickly consigned to irrelevancy.

The dust has largely settled since this haphazard response to the iPad, and the main remaining competitors — Google and Microsoft — seem to have finally tuned their offerings and launched a thoughtful counterattack against Apple.

Microsoft’s promise

Like a sleeping hippopotamus poked and prodded a few too many times, Microsoft has finally lashed out with some competitive fury in the mobile space, even going so far as to take tablet hardware in-house after consumers panned the clunky hardware and poorly integrated software that represented the first response to the iPad.

With Windows 8 and its Surface tablet, Microsoft promises a multiple personality device of sorts. You can use it like an iPad to browse the web, bang out a long email with the integrated keyboard covers like your laptop, and slip it into a desktop dock at the office. Microsoft also answers the iPad’s largest criticism, that it’s geared toward content consumption rather than content creation.

Apple has attempted to respond by adding additional software, but the majority of enterprise users are more likely to use a full-featured and broadly compatible word processor than indulge their inner Scorsese or Adams. Microsoft thus puts pressure on the higher end for Apple, promising more functionality, more roles, and familiar software — all in a similar hardware package that’s likely priced on the higher end of the iPad spectrum.

Google’s guerrilla effort

The more I read about Google’s new Nexus 7 tablet, the more I’m convinced that it represents a focused and direct assault on the iPad that’s likely to be successful where Google’s past attempts have failed. Unlike Microsoft, Google attacks Apple at the low end, charging $199 (less than half of Apple’s cheapest new iPad) for a high-quality tablet running the latest and greatest version of Android. Unlike 18 months ago, shoddy no-name Android hardware has largely been culled from the marketplace, and the Android OS itself has mostly overcome early growing pains.

Perhaps the biggest indication of the threat a device like the Nexus 7 poses to Apple is that the company famous for offering a bare minimum of different products is now rumored to be producing a 7-inch tablet with a reduced price. If the “iPad Mini” comes to pass, this is the first time Apple makes what looks like a reactionary play in the tablet space, something no manufacturer has been able to pull off since the iPad’s introduction.

Et tu, Apple?

It seems major players Google and Microsoft are finally taking the tablet space and the business model required to play there seriously, each offering a compelling and distinct product that scratches some itch rather than simply shouting, “Hey, we have a tablet too!”

For Apple, there are certainly opportunities to retain dominance. Microsoft’s Windows 8 and Surface tablets remain a largely untested commodity, and we don’t yet know how close Microsoft will get to its compelling vision once reality strikes. Similarly, if Apple can achieve near price parity with lower-end Android offerings, it may win the day with its larger software catalog and current cachet, assuming it can avoid being dragged into a price war. Apple also retains a dark horse of its own in the form of its future plans for iOS and OS X, both of which have been increasingly cross-pollinating features in an effort that some think will result in a single OS across Apple devices.

For enterprises, the newly invigorated Microsoft and more intelligent Google simultaneously bring some clarity to the chaotic tablet space. The tablet field has these three key players, each with largely incompatible hardware and software, and there are unique pros and cons to each platform. The old bromide that competition will spur innovation does little to assure CIOs their investment in tablets today will be relevant tomorrow, which only serves to highlight the need for cross-platform tools and technologies that will work with whatever tablet platform finally emerges to dominance.

Do you think Apple will be able to retain tablet dominance? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.