For the first time, Google has a chance at catching up with Apple in the hot tablet computer market. That’s one of the core points I took away from Google’s press event yesterday where it showed off Honeycomb, the next version of its Android software, specifically aimed at tablets. The ball is now in Apple’s court.

If Google can launch its Android 3.0 software without a hitch, then the path will be clear for a bunch of new Android tablets to challenge the Apple iPad. While Apple stands poised to launch its iPad 2 tablet in April, the likelihood is that Apple won’t enjoy as big a lead in 2010. The wild card is 4G service, the speedy wireless broadband links that will dramatically improve the speed of web surfing on tablets.

Last year, Apple crushed all of the competition, selling 14.8 million iPads and taking anywhere from 75 to 95 percent of the market. But Android tablets didn’t really show up until the fourth quarter, when the Samsung Galaxy Tab launched and shipped 2 million units into stores. (The actual sold-to-customers number is in dispute).

Apple had all the advantages, with unique content and lots of apps. It had a superior product, a good user interface that millions of iPod Touch and iPhone users already knew, and the iTunes store that many consumers already knew how to use.

But now Google has shown off many of the details of Honeycomb, the tablet-focused release of Android, and it looks good. The Motorola Xoom tablet displayed 18 cool apps running on Honeycomb. And the new user interface has a number of cool features that Apple doesn’t. You can, for instance, buy an app on the Android Market and it will download over the air to your phone. You don’t have to wait until you sync your device with a computer.

It’s pretty easy to navigate through the apps, thanks in part to fast graphics performance and the subtle use of 3D in the design. Scrolling through web pages and Google Maps is easy. In short, these features mean that Honeycomb goes a long way toward erasing Apple’s edge in its user interface and basic navigation.

As we noted, cool 3D games can now run on Android tablets. And 3D can be extended beyond games, as with the Google Body app pictured at the right.

Right now, there is a shortage of Android apps specifically designed for tablets. Apple has a plethora of beautiful apps, including Flip Board, Epic Games’ Infinity Blade, and News Corp.’s The Daily newspaper. But developers from Disney to Intuit demonstrated their support for Honeycomb this week. And more developers should come thanks to the addition of in-app purchases, which will make paid apps a reality on the Android Market. Developers such as Ngmoco and Disney cited in-app purchases (the ability to buy virtual goods or apps from within a running application) as a critical game-changer for the Android market, which has mostly monetized apps through advertising to date. Before the arrival of in-app purchases, the Android Market was completely broken.

The developer problem will subside over time. After all, on phones, Android has more than 100,000 apps. While Apple has more than 330,000 iPhone apps, its advantages in terms of exclusive content will likely lessen as Android catches up at a pretty fast clip. Also, the big cross-platform app makers such as Zynga, whose Words With Friends app is pictured at right, are committed to making their apps run across several platforms. The iPhone players will be able to play Words With Friends against Android players. That means developers don’t want to be locked down to one mobile platform, and clearly they don’t have to be.

Overall, 2010 should be the year of the tablet because of the arrival of fast dual-core processors such as the Nvidia Tegra 2, which powers the Motorola Xoom and the LG G-Slate. Hopefully, a lot more tablet models will show up by the end of the year. If anything, we’re surprised that so few Honeycomb-based tablets have been announced so far.

That leaves the 4G question as a wild card. If the new Android tablets launch ahead of the iPad 2 and get great access to fast broadband speeds of 4G wireless networks, then those tablets will offer something new that Apple doesn’t. If Apple can offer 4G in a timely way, then it’s kind of an even battle. But the risk is there that Apple will be stuck on 3G networks while Android tablets take advantage of 4G. That would be a losing proposition for Apple, since 4G is so novel.

A lot also depends on what Apple announces. Typically, Apple updates its hardware once a year. That means it will launch its iPad 2 in April and the iPhone 5 in June. It could add some interesting new technologies, such as near-field communications, which will make mobile shopping a much more interesting experience. Apple really has to come up with something great in those new products if it wants to keep an edge.

In any case, we can expect the tablet market to even out. It won’t be lopsided in Apple’s favor anymore, much like the smartphone market isn’t owned by the iPhone.

It’s going to be exciting to watch. And we must remember that there are other players out there jockeying for market share, including Research in Motion, Nokia and its Meego software, Palm (now owned by Hewlett-Packard) and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7, which is off to a decent start. I’ve included Google’s demo of Honeycomb in the video below.