With Microsoft releasing their own hardware and software package with the Microsoft Surface, it’s a good time to look at the current shape of the tablet market.

The iPad continues to dominate, as it has done since it effectively created the tablet market with the launch of the original iPad and with subsequent releases of the iPad 2 and iPad 3. In the first quarter of 2012 it was responsible for 65% of tablet shipments (ABI research) out of a total of 18.2m devices. Since launch the same figures estimate 67m total sales of the iPad across its first two years.

Interestingly, Samsung, such a strong player in the handset market, has restored its position as no.2 in the market with 1.1m shipments, ahead of Amazon’s Kindle Fire which was expected to become a tipping point for a serious iPad competitor, but is still to demonstrate the impact of its more basic cousin, the original Kindle eReader.

So, what of the Microsoft Surface? With its complete end-to-end hardware and software package, it is in principle a competitor to Apple’s own full control of the experience. The looks are good and the detachable keyboard is a key innovation and differentiator, but quite where it leaves other hardware manufacturers developing for Windows 8 is another question, with Microsoft not having to foot the bill for a software licence.

As yet we don’t know the price of the device, although early reports suggest it will be equivalent to iPad pricing – not the cheapest, but not the most expensive either.

Is it a serious competitor to the iPad? Having watched promising releases from Samsung and Amazon still fail to break up Apple’s majority share of tablet sales, it’s too early to say, but with Microsoft’s R&D budget and staying power, this could be a tablet to watch.