Are Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) retail stores anything more than Genius Bars that also sell product from time to time? I'm beginning to wonder. The Mac maker is now selling its iPad 2 in 500 U.S. RadioShack (NYSE: RSH) locations, CNET reports.

The announcement isn't entirely surprising, since RadioShack began selling Apple's iPhone 3G and 3GS back in 2009. As an investor, I'm more surprised by how big Apple's retail channel has become.

In addition to RadioShack, Apple's partners include Best Buy (NYSE: BBY) -- which sells Macs, iPhones, iPods, and iPads -- and AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ), which move iPhones and iPads.

Thousands more stores sell iGear today than a decade ago. The widening channel suggests a changing role for Apple's retail outlets, from primary sellers to product showcases and support centers. Engage customers face to face, and they'll be more likely to buy your products. And if those shoppers choose to buy your goods elsewhere? So be it.

Consider the alternative for a moment. Apple would have no trouble building its own retail network if it wanted to. Using just a fraction of its more than $60 billion in cash and investments on its books, the iEmpire could geometrically expand its retail footprint. That it hasn't chosen to do so says something about CEO Steve Jobs' strategy.

One possibility is that Apple wants to win the hearts and minds of comparison shoppers. A growing list of Android vendors is fighting for retail shelf space at electronics stores. By striking its own retail deals early, Apple ensures that consumers have every chance to compare iOS devices to rivals at the point of purchase.

This makes a lot of sense to me. As much as I like Apple's retail stores for providing on-site product support, I'm fine buying my Apple gear wherever I get a great price. The iEmpire wins either way, and so do I.

Do you agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think about Apple's retail war with Android using the comments box below.

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