Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) didn't invent the tablet computer, but it was certainly the first to make one that consumers would want. The first iPad never had any serious competition despite the best efforts of Dell (Nasdaq: DELL), Samsung, and Motorola Mobility (NYSE: MMI) to make a dent in the market. Indeed, the iPad 2 just fixed a few bugs from the first generation, like the lack of teleconferencing cameras -- because there wasn't a threat worth the investment to really redesign the thing.

Today, Sony (NYSE: SNE) hopes to change all that.

Two just-announced Sony tablets each bring something entirely new to the table:

  • The S1 is the usual 10-inch slate of unbroken glass, but the backside is contoured to make it more comfortable to hold for a long time. This is the media tablet in Sony's portfolio.
  • The S2 comes with two 5.5-inch screens and folds up like a Brobdingnagian Nintendo (OTC BB: NTDOY.PK) DS clamshell. It's designed for portability, and the fold-up action protects the screens without add-on covers.

While there's no guarantee that consumers would automatically flock to the Sony tablet series, these gadgets stand a chance because they're different. The tablet format hasn't evolved much since that first iPad, only varying screen sizes and superficial design details. The time seems ripe for some fresh design ideas.

The biggest strike against the Sony tablets is their stretched-out release schedule. I think you'd have an immediate hit if Sony were ready to put an S2 in your hands today (with a snappier product name, of course). But you'll have to wait until the fall, making the currently exciting Honeycomb software look dated and giving other vendors a long window in which to outshine Sony.

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) probably doesn't care if that happens, of course -- a hot-selling Android tablet from Sony is just as good as pushing millions of units of the Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS) Nook Color e-reader, which also runs Android and might be the best non-Apple tablet on the market today.

In any case, this launch shows that Android partners can think outside the single rectangular screen. The S2 will never replace the iPad (though the S1 might be a threat), but it looks poised to carve out its own niche in the market. When in doubt, specialize!

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.