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Tablets in the Fast Lane

Sales are racing, but how is Web performance?

Steve Jobs no doubt knew when he uttered the phrase “post-PC world” on the stage of the Yerba Buena Center that he was stirring up a hornet’s nest. It was first met with an expected dose of skepticism. But in the two years since it has become clear that, while reports of the PC’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, we have indeed entered an era where the PC is just one node in a network of dispersed, connected devices that together will drive both personal and business computing. As Jobs predicted, tablet devices have stepped into a major role in that network at a breathtaking pace.

With first weekend sales of the “new” iPad of some 4 million units, it’s safe to say that the relevant question is no longerif consumers will buy a tablet, but when. By the end of 2012, nearly 40 million Americans will be tapping, swiping, and zooming their way through digital content on tablets. In just the two years since the iPad launched, tablets are proving to be the device of choice — over smartphones and computers—for any of the tasks for which it was designed, whether it’s browsing the Web, watching videos, reading books, or basic communication.

The question remains though, as to how well the Web experience on tablets will meet consumer expectations. It’s one thing to happily tap and swipe your way along when you’re in the Apple ecosystem using native apps on a Wi-Fi connection. It’s quite another when you’re out and about trying to load a website over a finicky wireless/cellular network. There’s nothing magical about staring at a beautiful, empty screen in your hands while you’re waiting for a website to load.

It’s a challenge that lands squarely in the laps of website owners. Users want fast, no matter what connection they’re on, and they want tablet-friendly content. Usability is an issue worthy of its own discussion, coming here soon. But the first order of tablet business is speed.

A lot of numbers, one compelling conclusion

Marketers live and die by the numbers, and the numbers for tablets are nothing short of compelling. The Yankee Group projects US tablet sales this year of 25 million units, totaling in excess of $5.4 billion, which will grow the installed base to nearly 40 million units. Annual sales will keep ratcheting up for the foreseeable future, reaching nearly 40 million units every year by 2015. 1Yankee Group report, “Analyzing the Tablet Landscape,” by Carl Howe, December 2011

Worldwide, tablet sales are expected to breach 100 million units in 2012, according to IDC, up from nearly 69 million in 2011. 2IDC press release, “Media Tablet Shipments Outpace Fourth Quarter Targets; Strong Demand for New iPad and Other Forthcoming Products Leads to Increase in 2012 Forecast, According to IDC,” 3/13/12

Apple owns the market now but won’t own it forever, at least not without a fight. Amazon has staked its claim in the low end of the market with the $199 Kindle Fire. Google is rumored to be planning a co-branded tablet to be sold in an online store it will create; the devices will be made by Samsung or Asus, and when its purchase of Motorola Mobility is completed, Google will likely be manufacturing its own branded tablet. 3The Wall Street Journal, “Google Heightens Rivalry With iPad,” by Amir Efrati, 3/30/12 Samsung shipped a surprising five million Galaxy Notes, a cross between a smartphone and tablet, in its first six months 4IDG News Service.“Samsung surprises experts by shipping 5 million Galaxy Notes,” by Mikael Ricknas, 3/28/12 — though that’s only about 20 percent more than Apple sold of its new iPad in the first weekend.

And then there’s the elephant in the room: Microsoft. The much-anticipated release of Windows 8 later this year will undoubtedly also bring Windows tablets into the market. While prognosticators aren’t expecting a hugely disruptive impact, the influence of Redmond can never be counted out. Dell, Lenovo, and Hewlett-Packard all have announced plans for Windows tablets, and Nokia is expected to join them. 5Reuters.com, “Dell sees room to challenge Apple in tablets,” by Georgina Prodhan and Paul Sandle, 3/16/12

If it’s not obvious enough already, what the actual sales data and the consensus of projections says is this: Led by the iPad, tablets are quickly becoming a force that can’t be ignored or short-shrifted by any marketer who depends on the Internet to build its brand, its sales or its audience. That includes just about everybody.

The online world’s most valuable customers

Maybe it’s because iPads are so pricy — at least for a device that no one knew they needed two years ago — and because it owns roughly 60 percent of the market. But tablet users are among the most well-heeled, eager-to-spend consumers to be found on the Internet. They’re an audience worth working to please if you’re the owner of an online property or storefront.

More than half of tablet users are college graduates, compared to 28% of the general population. They’re nearly twice as likely to have household incomes of $75,000 or more, and a third more likely to be employed full-time. 6Pew Research Center/journalism.org, “The Tablet Revolution: Who Tablet Users Are, Demographics and News Habits,” 10/25/11 More than 60 percent are age 18-49. And contrary to popular speculation, 28 percent are over 50; tablets are not just a stylish accouterment of the Millennial digerati. 7Nielsen/nm incite, “State of the Media: U.S. Digital Consumer Report, Q3-Q4 2011”

Most importantly for online merchants, tablet owners are buyers. A majority prefer shopping on the tablet over the computer. They spend 50 percent more than smartphone shoppers and 20 percent more than shoppers using computers, according to Adobe research. They’re just as likely to buy as someone on a computer, and three times more likely to buy than a smartphone shopper. 8Adobe Digital Marketing Insights, “The Impact of Tablet Visitors on Retail Websites,” (2011 data)

On the tablet, websites matter

These desirable consumers are doing their shopping and a whole lot more far more frequently via the built-in Web browser, rather than a specialized app. According to Nielsen, mobile shoppers prefer the Web to dedicated apps nearly two-to-one on the top retail sites. 9Nielsen, “A Store in Your Pocket: Retailer Mobile Websites Beat Apps among US Smartphone Owners,” 3/12/12 Keynote’s own research indicates that tablet users prefer websites to apps by a wide margin for a host of activities including reading news and finding food, entertainment, product, and travel information.

What all this data means for most website owners is A) it may not be imperative to invest in apps unless you have a compelling use case, and B) it is imperative to invest in a website — perhaps even a tablet-specific website — that will deliver the kind of performance and experience tablet users want.

Wi-Fi or Wireless? The tablet conundrum.

In some circles, discussions about tablet connectivity can be more heated than election-year political debates. Do you put tablets in the "Wi-Fi" device category, and thereby dismiss the network question? Or do you factor in the premium that buyers pay to have wireless capability, and therefore believe that over-the-air performance is critical for that sizable minority who goes online via wireless at least some of the time?

The data on Wi-Fi vs. wireless is all over the place. The Yankee Group says two-thirds of tablets are Wi-Fi-only. Chetan Sharma Consulting says 90 percent are Wi-Fi only, factoring in those who have the capability but don't choose to activate it. 13Chetan Sharma Technology & Strategy Consulting, “US Wireless Market Update Q4 2011 and 2011” Others put Wi-Fi-only at around 70 percent.

But whether it’s 10, 20 or 30 percent, can websites really afford to dismiss such a sizeable chunk of this most lucrative audience by not focusing on over-the-air performance?

“These are devices meant for people on the go,” argues Tim Murphy, senior marketing manager at Keynote Systems. “They’re looking to be entertained, or looking for some travel information at an airport, and they don’t want to wait to go find a passcode for the Wi-Fi. They’re relying on a 3G network, and as long as that's part of the product offering, website owners have to think that many of their users will be going that way."

What’s your tablet strategy?

“We see a range that goes from, ‘I have no idea’ how my site performs on a tablet to ‘we’ve gone through and made sure that our site does no evil,” says Keynote Senior Product Manager Dave Karow. “On through to ‘we’ve specifically enhanced our site to make it even better on the iPad.’ There’s even a further step, where the site goes in and makes it look like an app, with big buttons, etc.”

The problem with the “no idea” or do nothing approach is that “standard” website performance on a tablet is very likely to be unsatisfactory. Keynote used its performance network to run a variety of three-screen comparisons and the data shows that between the desktop, smartphone, and tablet (over wireless), tablet performance is very likely the poorest. In some cases, the results are downright abysmal.

In a study with the Yankee Group, for example, Keynote found that Amazon took more than four times as long to load on a tablet as on a smartphone — 25.9 seconds vs. 6.1 (vs. just 2.9 seconds on the desktop). Facebook, LinkedIn, Kayak, Bing, IMDB, MSN and Groupon all clocked higher times on the tablet than the smartphone, by varying degrees.

The results are similar in Keynote’s new Startup Shootout Monthly Index. Recent measurements show sites like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare lagging in performance on tablets. Most of the travel sites measured — sites that are more likely to be accessed over wireless by people on the go — showed plenty of room for improvement. Only one clocked in at less than 15 seconds. TripAdvisor took more than 25 seconds, or more than five times as long as its smartphone site.

Performance numbers like these are a problem for any kind of site.

“With mobile users, the duration of attention is very short,” says Herman Ng, Keynote mobile performance evangelist. “When things don’t show up, you’re going to get distracted and do something else, or you may not want to use up your monthly data allowance. You can often get the same content from another site.”

How fast is fast enough?

On the desktop, users want to see a page load in two seconds or less. But what is the threshold on a tablet? In a Keynote survey of more than 5,000 tablet users, more than 30 percent said they wanted a Web page to load in two seconds or less — the same as a desktop. Another 28+ percent said three seconds. Only 10 percent expected to wait six seconds or more.

This was self-reported data, not actual measurement, so it’s possible the respondents were reporting less tolerance than actual behavior would indicate. And in fact, at the same time, they express some willingness to cut sites some slack — 44 percent said they’d try refreshing the page if it took too long to load; 12 percent said they’d just wait.

Best practice: Build specifically for the tablet.

The most obvious reason for poor tablet performance is simply sending too much content. Most of the sites in the Yankee Group study don’t customize for the tablet at all. Pushing a full-blown desktop site across a cellular signal virtually assures slow performance.

Some sites actually push more content to the tablet. Sometimes it’s additional items promoting the site’s app. Other times, it’s additional content specifically because it’s a tablet. Amazon, for example, sends 18 times as much data to tablets, including more detailed photos, as it does to smartphones. 10Yankee Group report, “Serving the New, More Mobile Web,” by Carl Howe, 1/12

“We have seen very often that tablet sites are the heaviest of the three, even heavier than a desktop” says Keynote Senior Marketing Manager Tim Murphy. “They will often be serving up a desktop version of the site plus additional content to promote an app. Or they might be providing geo-location services. What that does is make performance over the 3G networks sub-par.”

One tactic for improving speed is to look at perceived page load time versus actual page load time, giving the user feedback or interactivity that lets them know the site is responding.

“There are things an enterprise can do to make the site appear to load faster, while it might still be loading,” Ng says. “Allowing the user to see the top of the page first, allowing them to interact with a portion of the page before it loads completely. With news, for example, maybe I want to check out the entertainment news. Entertainment is never on the front page of CNN or USA TODAY. But if you can see the menu and touch on the menu before all the featured news loads, that’s a good thing. You speed up performance. From the user point of view, they got good performance, because they’re able to see the menu bar in less than three seconds, click on entertainment, and then now wait another maybe eight seconds before the whole thing loads.”

While any number of tips and tricks can be employed to make a desktop site perform better, the ideal strategy is to build a site specifically for the tablet with the end user in mind. The content can be optimized for any type of connection. And through the magic of HTML5, the tablet’s additional capabilities — touch, gesture, geolocation and more — can be leveraged to deliver the kind of experience that makes the device unique.

“I don’t think a lot of companies are starting with the end-state in mind,” says Murphy. “They’re slowly launching sites that are performing as poorly on tablets as they are on smartphones. Then they’re figuring, ‘what do I do to improve this experience, because I’m delivering content in 12 seconds.’ A wiser approach is to say, ‘I’m going to prepare for tablets. This is what I want and I’m going to work towards that end-goal. The question to ask is, ‘what’s the tablet experience going to be? What’s unique about it and how is it different than the desktop?’ Because it’s not the desktop crammed into a different box. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.”

4G on the horizon?

In addition to the Retina display, the big news on the new iPad is 4G/LTE capability. This faster cellular standard promises a big leap in data speed. The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg tested the iPad on Verizon in Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas, and “averaged LTE download speeds of over 17 megabits per second, faster than most home wired networks."  11The Wall Street Journal, “New iPad: A Million More Pixels Than HDTV,” by Walt Mossberg, 3/14/12

That’s amazing performance, but the reality is that “your results may vary,” and with the big networks still in the build-out phase, we’re a long way from 4G-everywhere coverage. And as more devices move up to 4G/LTE, and more people want to watch TV and consume heavy content on the go, those data pipes will clog as they have with 3G. And then there’s the many millions of non-4G tablets already in users’ hands to consider.

Bottom line: The tablet audience is too attractive, and too big, to not get special attention. A tablet-optimized site at minimum, or ideally a tablet-specific site, is a must for every website that wants to maximize its presence and success.

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