NEW YORK: The tablet PC category will experience very rapid growth over the next few years with Apple's iPad maintaining its position as market leader, Gartner has said.

A new report from the US research firm suggests that global tablet sales will grow from 15m last year to 70m in 2011 - and then to 294m in 2015.

This year, Apple is predicted to sell 48m iPads for a 69% market share. By 2015, sales of the device will grow to 138m - a share of 47%.

Over the same period, annual sales of Android-powered devices should increase from 2.5m to 113m, or a 39% share.

Gartner suggested that firms should concentrate on gaining an edge over rivals in the software, rather than the hardware, they offer users.

To Gartner, the "ecosystem" developed by Apple for its iPad - such as access to the company's market-leading App Store - has been crucial to the device's early lead.

"Apple iPad did to the tablet PC market what the iPhone did to the smartphone market: re-invented it," the report added.

"A media tablet is not just a different form factor to perform the same tasks that can be done on a PC. Tablets deliver a richer experience around content consumption, thanks to the ecosystem they support. The richer the ecosystem, the stronger the pull for consumers."

One major difference between the tablet and the smartphone market is the low market share predicted for RIM, makers of the BlackBerry.

The new QNX operating system, to which BlackBerry devices are to transfer in 2012, is predicted by Gartner to gain an overall share of just 10% in 2015.

Again, this trend will be due more to software rather than hardware.

"It will take time and significant effort for RIM to attract developers and deliver a compelling ecosystem of applications and services around QNX to position it as a viable alternative to Apple or Android," said Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner.

"This will limit RIM's market share growth over the forecast period."

Data sourced from Gartner; additional content by Warc staff