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Everyone knows the mobile web is growing at light speed, introducing new opportunities and challenges in web management. However, when I look at my client’s web analytics, the leading device accessing their website is not a smartphone, it’s a tablet. Apple iPad consistently ranks as the #1 device for viewing web content.

Adobe recently released some research that backs this up. Adobe’s “The Rise of Tablets" (pdf) projects that tablet visits will surpass all smartphone visits by January 2013 and generate over 10 percent of all website visits by early 2014. Tablet web traffic is growing 200 percent faster than smartphones. The iPad commands the tablet market. Last year Comscore reported that the Apple iPad accounted for over 97 percent of tablet web traffic.

Should this be a surprise? Apple iPad sales are expected to exceed 60 million units this year. A recent Forrester Research report, "Tablets Will Rule the Future Personal Computing Landscape," predicts tablet sales to top 375 million units by 2016, with iPad taking the lion’s share of the market.

Combining new sales with tablets already in circulation will result in about 760 million tablets in use by 2016. Or to look at it in another light, Apple has already sold over 55 million iPads, a milestone it took the Mac over 20 years reach.

The explosive growth of the iPad and tablet category only tells part of the story. The tablet is truly the fourth screen in our digital life. It is completely different from a PC, smartphone or TV. It is not a productivity tool, it is not a communications device -- it is a content device built for information consumption.

The Riddle of the Sphinx

The mythic Sphinx in ancient Egypt had the head of a pharaoh and the body of a lion. It has always been emblematic of an enigma. In Greek tradition the Sphinx guarded the gates of Thebes and required travelers to answer a riddle, which one answered incorrectly at their own peril. In this and many other ways the Sphinx is an apt metaphor for the Apple iPad.

The iPad is part mobile device, part PC. It uses the same operating system as the Apple iPhone (iOS 5.x) and shares the same high-resolution Retina display and multi-touch user experience. However, the overall dimensions and form factor of the iPad are closer to that of a traditional laptop PC.

So what is a tablet? The truth is an iPad and other tablets are neither mobile devices nor PCs. They are simply tablets.

Like a Sphinx, tablets also pose a riddle, and I believe web publishers must answer this riddle at their own peril. At the heart of the riddle is this question: “How can I best engage users on the tablet platform?”

The Tablet Web Experience

When web publishers consider how to support tablets, the question usually comes down to leveraging their mobile website display or falling back to the traditional desktop PC view. I believe that neither of these approaches is ideal; a tablet web experience is fundamentally different from that of a phone or a PC.

Smartphones excel at task-based user experiences. Within the confines of a mobile form factor, content is generally best presented in stream with minimal navigation. Traditional PC websites put an emphasis on top and sidebar navigation as well as branding. Tablets thrive on content driven layouts: a tabloid mix of text and images, multi-column displays and “teasers” to pull users deeper into the website.

The Rebirth of Reading

When it comes to web content, I see tablets primarily as reading devices. Or, better said, tablets are about “beautiful reading experiences.”

Tablets share much of the same DNA as e-Readers, such as the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Indeed Apple’s iBooks and the Amazon Kindle app are consistently at the top of the charts for iPad apps. Magazine apps like Flipboard and Zinio are also very popular. The common denominator is a focus on elegant and functional reading experiences. That is, a reading experience that provides the aesthetics of a magazine with the functionality of an app.

Web publishers should take direction from e-Readers and magazine apps when preparing content for tablet delivery. While there is an expectation for a traditional “full” website view when visiting a website on a tablet, that experience can be enhanced by re-orienting the layout to focus on reading views for content. This means leveraging the multi-touch navigation capabilities of the device to empower users to easily turn pages, zoom in on images and resize text while maintaining a more responsive design that adapts to the contours of the tablet device.

Practical Concerns

In order to support tablets as a first class channel for web content, web publishers must understand the requirements of the device and its usage.

The first question one may ask is whether to build a separate website for tablets or to manage a single website and domain with an optimized tablet view. I am a big proponent of a “one web” strategy where desktop, mobile and tablet views of content are delivered using the same content, domains and URLs. This approach better supports in-bound marketing and web traffic, simplifies analytics and reduces the effort it takes to manage content.

Because the Apple iPad shares the same operating system and user agent as an iPhone, it is important to set up device detection on your servers to properly recognize content requests.

When designing your tablet view, it is important to adjust the text sizes to account for the higher screen density on the original and new Retina display iPads. Text should be displayed in a larger size than the desktop PC view. Additionally, the leading, or space between the lines of text, should be increased.

Because the iPad has the same limitations showing Adobe Flash media, videos should be re-encoded to display with iPad-friendly players. Image rotators developed in Flash should be replaced with jQuery or other cross-platform technologies.

Lastly, mobile web technologies such as jQuery mobile may be employed to deliver multi-touch interactions such as tap and swipe.

Conclusion

The Apple iPad is the number one device accessing web content today. While tablets share many of the same qualities as smartphones and PCs, tablets stand apart as unique computing platforms. Tablets also carry a unique set of user expectations. Content truly is king. Responsive designs and beautiful reading experiences deliver unprecedented user engagement that fit the “content first” paradigm of the platform.

Like the ancient Sphinx, tablets present a riddle. The impact of this riddle may be larger than we know. Every paradigm shift in technology has winners and losers. Organizations that unravel this modern equivalent of the riddle of the Sphinx and discover how to successfully leverage the tablet platform may not only be allowed to enter the gates of Thebes, they may be granted safe passage into the next digital age.

Title image courtesy of Pius Lee (Shutterstock).

Editor's Note: To read more about the demands of mobile technology on publishing: