January 11, 2011, 11:41 AM

The iPad will transform e-commerce

After just a few days with an iPad, it is clear the device will be key.

Lead Photo

The eBay iPad app provides a rich, vivid customer experience.

When the iPad first came out last April, I wasn’t so sure how impactful it would be on e-commerce. After all, you’re just accessing e-commerce sites the same as you would on a desktop or laptop. And there was no big rush by retailers to build iPad apps as there was with the iPhone. And why exactly would someone need a tablet PC if they already have a laptop and a smartphone?

But last week, when I got an iPad and spent a significant amount of time on it browsing the web and downloading and using dozens of apps, I saw the light. This device offers an extraordinarily elegant and vivid web and app experience, one retailers can really exploit.

Apple Inc. sold 8.5 million iPads in 2010, growing 128% to 19.4 million in 2011 and growing another 55% to 30.1 million in 2012, research firm eMarketer predicts. Manufacturers of all tablet computers, including Apple, will sell 9.7 million units in 2010, 24.0 million in 2011 and 40.6 million in 2012, eMarketer says. That translates to the iPad owning 88% of total tablet sales in 2010, 81% in 2011 and 74% in 2012.

Plain and simple, the iPad, like the iPhone before it, has a strong allure. And deservedly so. The high-definition screen makes web sites and images and colors pop in a way that can’t be matched by most smartphones and even desktop monitors. Apps come perfectly designed and proportioned for the ample 9.7-inch screen, and are more robust than their smartphone counterparts.

What about other tablet PCs? The few that have come out since the launch of the iPad haven’t made a dent in iPad sales, and frankly, that iPad allure is awfully powerful. Plus, Apple yet again has come out first with a product and secured a tremendous number of customers before other players got off the ground. (There are many more tablets on the way, many using Google Inc.’s popular Android smartphone operating system.)

I’ve scoured the App Store for retail iPad apps and to date have downloaded 24. Each one offers a great customer experience and is a joy to use. Retailers with iPad apps include Amazon.com Inc., eBay Inc., Gap Inc., Gilt Groupe, The Golf Warehouse, HSN Inc., The Neiman Marcus Group Inc., QVC, Sears Holdings Corp., Toys ‘R’ Us Inc., Wine.com Inc. and Zappos.

But all of this leads me back to the question that still bothers me: Are sales made on the iPad truly mobile commerce? I still contend that the iPad is not a mobile device but a portable device. A mobile device fits in your pocket and can be taken anywhere you go. A smartphone is a truly mobile device; an iPad is not, which is why I call it a portable device, like a laptop or netbook.

However, with one exception, all of the retailers I’ve talked with that have offered comment on how they are accounting for iPad sales (typically through the same e-commerce site one can access on the desktop) say they count these sales as mobile commerce. As far as they’re concerned, iPad sales = mobile sales. And if retailers say iPad sales are part of their mobile count, I pretty much have to follow suit.

Since the launch of the iPad, I’ve covered it, apps for it and issues surrounding it. As I said earlier, it’s clearly a device that will have a potent impact on e-commerce. I think I’m going to have to broaden the definition of mobile commerce, though, and say that tablet PCs are truly a part of mobile commerce. That’s what retailers are saying, and with millions of consumers flocking to these portable, um, excuse me, mobile devices, that’s the direction consumers are heading.

I’ve got to get going now. I have to play with the brand new iPad app from Peapod. Apple—you got me again.

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