The market for tablet devices, which basically didn’t exist at this time last year, is now a major focus for just about every large computer and mobile manufacturer.

Yet despite this, one company is reaping almost all of the rewards: Apple.

The concept of a tablet computing device isn’t new, so it would be foolish to chalk Apple’s dominance of this nascent market up to first-mover advantage. The real reason for Apple’s lead with the iPad is simple: no other technology company is capable of convincing consumers that they need a new type of computing device quite like Apple.

But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for competition. Case in point: HP’s new TouchPad, which the company officially introduced to the world yesterday. It’s HP’s second tablet device. The first, the HP Slate 500, is geared towards business users and runs Windows 7.

The TouchPad more closely resembles the iPad on the outside; it’s roughly the same size, for instance. But on the inside, there are some key differences: it comes with a gyroscope, a webcam and support for multi-tasking. The TouchPad is also the first HP tablet that is running on webOS, which HP got as part of its acquisition of Palm. Engadget saysthe software UI we’re seeing looks downright luscious,” and there’s support for Flash.

If the initial reviews and impressions are any indication, it looks like HP may have a winner on its hands, and the iPad may have some worthy competition. But it’s far too early to state with any certainty that the TouchPad will be a viable iPad contender.

The Palm Pre seemed to stack up well against the iPhone when it was released, and even though we’re talking about HP here, not Palm, what the tech media likes and what consumers actually buy can be two very different things.

There are also plenty of unknowns. Pricing hasn’t yet been revealed, and that will naturally have a huge impact on sales. There are far fewer apps for webOS, which may complicate HP’s consumer push. And with the iPad 2 coming, we may find that some of the TouchPad’s features don’t look nearly so impressive.

From this perspective, we may find that the TouchPad, and webOS, are greater competition to Android devices and Android than they are to the iPad and iOS, but the good news overall is that companies like HP are in it to win it, and they have the money and technical resources to give other players in the tablet market a run for their money.

That doesn’t mean that Apple still won’t simply step on the gas and leave them all in the dust, but it should help propel the tablet space to new heights.

Photo credit: Robert Scoble via Flickr.