Remember the days when analysts and Wall Street observers believed the iPad would continue to lead tablet sales for years, and Android competitors still needed work? Funny how time flies. Although Apple isn’t laughing, there is talk Google could overtake Apple in 2013. The problem is the iPad’s lead over a pack of Android alternatives is shrinking to that when the Apple tablet was introduced in 2010.

Also, remember all those non-Android slates from HP and RIM? Yeah, neither does anyone else. That’s the other problem…

According to ABI Research, the iPad held 55 percent of tablets shipped during the third quarter of this year. That’s a decent percentage, until you learn it is a 14-percent drop from the previous quarter.

But the concerns over the iPad’s future don’t just stop there. It was just last year when research firm Gartner forecast it would take Android tablets until 2015 to earn 38 percent of the market. Google now has 44 percent of the tablet market.

The failure of HP’s webOS and RIM’s PlayBook likely fueled Android’s growth in tablets, according to TechCrunch. For Apple, HP and RIM were welcomed additions to the tablet party – the more fissures in the Android attack, the better.

“The lack of competitive alternatives has helped Android gain share much faster than most originally predicted, meaning a tipping point might not be that far off,” writes the tech blog’s Darrell Etherington. One of the chief slams against Android was that the many players meant Apple had a fractious and disorganized opposition – easy, peasy to overwhelm.

Well, that many-headed hydra has pared down to some lean, mean competitive machines: Amazon’s Kindle, which the giant Internet retailer seems happy to sell at cost so long as the device means more ebooks, music and apps shipped.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdmkhzGD-ZA

Then there is Google and the Nexus 7 – one of the few tech companies that could stand toe-to-toe with Apple when it comes to bank accounts. Finally, there is Samsung, the South Korean conglomerate which is the Timex of tech – it takes a licking and keeps on ticking. No matter how many patent lawsuits it loses, Samsung just keeps churning out the Galaxy tablets, Notes and smartphones.

Which isn’t to say all is lost for Apple in terms of tablets. It might be good for Apple to channel its underdog image for a while. As Etherington correctly notes, Android for some time has lead the iPhone in smartphone market share.

Are Apple execs crying?

Sure – all the way to the bank.

Apple could take a lesson from the long-distance runner: it’s no fun leading the pack, since everyone is gunning for you. Give Android the spotlight for a while – and the bullseye.

Would it be terrible if Apple was #2 unit-wise in both tablets and smartphones?