December 15, 2010, 4:52 PM

iPad sales will more than double next year, research firm predicts

More retailers will have to consider whether they need an iPad app, experts say.

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If there’s one thing Apple Inc. knows how to do, it’s create a sexy, innovative mobile or portable device that everyone craves. It did it with the mobile iPhone, and, as new research shows, it’s done it again with the portable iPad.

Apple will sell 8.5 million iPads this year, 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 this year, 81% in 2011 and 74% in 2012.

What do retailers have to do about this new wave of web browsers and shoppers travelling the Internet on their iPads? Nothing, necessarily. The 9.7-inch, high-definition iPad screen is similar to that of many laptops, so visiting standard, non-optimized web sites is a breeze on an iPad. Two caveats, though: First, Apple’s iOS4 operating system does not render Flash files. So retailers that make heavy use of Flash may want to optimize their sites for the iPad with rich media content that does not use Flash, mobile commerce experts say. Second, the same can be said for rollover features—because the iPad is a touchscreen device, there is no mouse that enables a user to rollover an object to view a pop-up window with more information.

But the other option is to create an iPad app. These apps are similar to iPhone apps, but make full use of the greater screen real estate. Some retailers have created iPad apps, though there hasn’t been a rush like there was with the iPhone. But pioneers like Neiman Marcus, Toys “R” Us and eBay Inc. are showing that apps for the iPad can create truly unique and innovative customer experiences.

Some retailers say they have an iPad app when in reality it’s their iPhone app. IPhone apps can be used on an iPad, but they render in the size of an iPhone 3.5-inch screen. IPad users can touch a button that increases the iPhone app to the size of the iPad screen, but many users say it renders a bit blurry and does not make effective use of the additional screen space.

“There are a lot of retailers who originally approached the iPad as ‘My iPhone app strategy will address that just fine,’ but in even six months time it has become clear that this strategy is not going to be enough,” says Nikki Baird, managing partner at Retail Systems Research. “The iPad is a different experience, and you can’t take the smaller real estate addressed by an iPhone app and expect it to deliver a high-quality experience that takes advantage of everything that an iPad has to offer.”

For the time being, most retailers are fine trusting their e-commerce sites to iPad browsing, mobile experts say.

“In the short term the browser will work just fine, as long as you don’t have Flash running,” Baird says. “But if a retailer wants to be able to take advantage of the iPad, they’ll need an app. Also, for loyal shoppers, there is a real advantage to retailers to provide an app because it basically keeps the consumer logged in, allows the consumer to customize preferences, and those are preserved every time the consumer accesses the app. Further, with permission, the retailer has an opportunity to send an alert via an app that they would not be able to send via a site-only experience.”

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