April 7, 2010, 12:00 AM

What does Apple’s much-hyped iPad mean for mobile commerce?

While some experts debate whether it should even be considered a truly mobile device, some retailers have launched iPad apps, special programs designed to optimize the experience and make use of the bigger size and resolution of the tablet computer.

Lead Photo

Apple's iPad

Hundreds of thousands of people now have an iPad in their hands, and they’re using the much-vaunted hardware. Apple Inc. sold 300,000 iPads April 3, the first day the tablet computer went on sale, and 250,000 e-books from its iBookstore the same day. Apple is No. 5 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide.

For retailers, the big question about this super-hyped machine is what does it mean for mobile commerce? Fundamentally, it is another device to add to the growing list of devices for which retailers can design an app, all the rest being smartphones like the iPhone or BlackBerry. However, an iPad user can just as easily shop an e-commerce site on an iPad because the screen is much larger than that on a smartphone (9.7 inches for the iPad versus 3.5 inches for the iPhone). An app simply enables a retailer to optimize the customer experience for the iPad user, if the retailer chooses to make the investment, which the handful of merchants with iPad apps today decline to disclose.

The key difference between the iPad and computer-like smartphones is indeed size. But that size, for some, disqualifies the device from mobile commerce.

“When a company asks us about mobile commerce strategy, we would not include an iPad. It’s not a mobile device,” says Jason Taylor, vice president of mobile products at Usablenet Inc., which builds smartphone and iPad apps. The interest in iPad apps it has seen to date has been from multichannel retailers wanting an in-store kiosk-like experience for sales associates. “The iPad is like a netbook,” Taylor says, referring to the category of smaller, low-priced notebook computers. “It’s a device that allows you to access the web in a full-browser, full-computer environment. It’s not a mobile-specific environment.”

Size also affects portability. “I’m not going to have an iPad in my pocket,” says Steve Yankovich, vice president of platform business solutions and mobile at eBay Inc., which offered an iPad app on Day One. “There are tradeoffs for both smartphones and the iPad. I won’t have the iPad at my daughter’s soccer game, but if I’m sitting at Starbucks, I’ll sit in a comfy chair with my iPad.”

Mobile or not, some retailers have been rushing to include the iPad in their mobile commerce playbook. Three retailers with iPad apps right out of the gate are eBay, fashion retailer Gilt Groupe Inc. and Apple, No. 1 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide.

Because of the success it has had with its comprehensive m-commerce program ($600 million in sales in 2009), eBay wanted an iPad app to complement its iPhone app, m-commerce site and text messaging program. The company views the iPad as a device with the potential to build its m-commerce momentum, and as such it wanted an optimized customer experience.

Like many experts today familiar with the iPad, eBay’s Yankovich points to three things that make using an app on an iPad different from a smartphone app experience: screen size, screen resolution and speed.

For example, the eBay app for the iPad opens to a screen with large, high-resolution pictures, not dependent on a lot of text to explain categories or products, and showcasing products in such high resolution that a consumer might be able to see if a guitar was subtly damaged, Yankovich says.

“And it’s very quick,” he adds. “Normally when you do a search on eBay you get several thousand products and you have to refine the search. But because of the nature of touch-screen technology and no need to limit content to one single page, just by swiping the screen you have this continuous flow of high-resolution images that creates an infinite page. 90 seconds later you have understood hundreds of listings in a visually pleasing manner without missing any products that you might have filtered out in a search refinement.”

Gilt Groupe, a members-only luxury merchandise retailer with an iPhone app and now an iPad app, also espouses the virtue of the bigger screen and higher resolution, but places special emphasis on speed. It offers “flash deals” at noon Eastern time every day. Using the large screen real estate, it lists the deals in a left-hand column, enabling a consumer to touch a deal and have details expanded into the right-hand column. The customer can then touch the product and drag it into the permanently visible shopping cart.

“You really need only one screen to shop Gilt,” says Jag Bath, vice president of product management. “Additional screens are really beneficial when it comes to what we do at Gilt, such as showcasing products on the higher-resolution screen to the point where you can see the details of small stitching. The iPad makes it easy for us to leverage our class-A, high-end photography. It’s like browsing a magazine, only you are seeing far better pictures and you can instantly buy what you see.”

Amazon.com added another device to its already formidable Kindle e-reading product line with the release April 3 of Kindle for iPad. The app lets users select from more than 450,000 books from the Kindle Store on iPad and features Amazon Whispersync technology that saves and synchronizes customers’ last page read, bookmarks, notes, and highlights across their Kindle, Kindle DX, iPhone, iPod Touch, Mac, iPad and other devices.

“Kindle for iPad includes all the features customers love about Kindle for iPhone along with a new user interface tailored to the look and feel of iPad,” says Jay Marine, director, Amazon Kindle. “Kindle for iPad is a way for customers around the world to download and enjoy books even if they don’t yet have a Kindle."

But it remains to be seen just how successful the iPad will be. And it’s a completely different form factor from the hardware that truly defines mobile commerce, so just how mobile is it? Gilt Groupe will wait and see. And it’s keeping its eye on the iPhone-3% of total sales stem from iPhone users on weekdays and up to 7% on weekends.

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