When Apple released the iPad earlier this year, there was a lot of discussion and debate about the fate of tablet devices. Was there a need for them? Did consumers really want them? Where in the computing food chain might they fit in?

Months later, Apple has sold millions iPads, confirming at a minimum that there is a market for tablet devices. But it’s still not clear what impact they’ll have on computing over the long-term.

The truth is that Apple can’t answer all the questions about tablet
computing. After all, while there is no doubt that the iPad has proven
to be quite popular, it’s a young product and the overall market for
tablet devices is still relatively small.

Much will depend on how the market responds to the tablet devices
launched by companies hoping to get a piece of the tablet computing pie
Apple has baked. Those devices are nearly here, and some have been on
at the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin.

Two of the tablets making their debut at IFA are two Android-based
devices: the Samsung Galaxy Tab and the Toshiba Folio 100. Both
demonstrate that the competition has taken a look at the iPad and what
it lacks. Samsung, for instance, has included a 1.3MP camera on the
Galaxy Tab, and thanks to its use of Android 2.2, the Galaxy Tab
supports Flash.

Are the Galaxy Tab and Folio 100 iPad killers? Perhaps not, but that
doesn’t mean that they and other tablet devices which will soon be
available for sale aren’t important products. They are for one reason:
they should help us discover whether or not there’s a broader market for
tablet devices.

Even if Apple dominates tablet devices with the iPad the same way it has
dominated, say, MP3 players with the iPod, major brands pushing
competing products with different prices, hardware specs, operating
systems and software packages will help expose more consumers to tablet
devices. How many will buy? There’s no doubt about the hype and
anticipation of the tablet’s impact on the world of computing, but only
the answer to that will determine whether or not tablet computing
remains a small niche or becomes a mainstream phenomenon affecting
everyone from content producers to software developers.

The good news is that we probably won’t have to wait long to have our answer.