Tablets have now become an established part of the UK digital economy - and, by extension, are now undeniably a mainstream platform for content marketing by UK brands. According to the latest survey by YouGov, conducted immediately after Christmas, more than 29% of Britain's online adults now own a tablet of some sort - and a further 7% told the pollsters that they intend to buy a tablet by the end of March.That means at least one-third of UK adults with access to the internet will own a tablet by Easter. Continuing their astonishing rise since the iPad was launched in 2010, the number of tablet owners has roughly doubled every Christmas for the last three years. If the trend continues, this time next year, a majority of the UK's adult population will own a tablet.
The key to the continued boom in tablet ownership lies in how the market changed shape in 2012. Previously, the market comprised one high-quality, high-priced market leader - the iPad - and a more or less unimpressive collection of Android tablets, comprising a bunch of cheap and fairly awful bottom feeders, and top-end offerings that rivaled the iPad in price, but were clearly inferior to Apple's iconic device.
However, last year the market was turned on its head by three Android manufacturers; Google, Samsung and Amazon. All three came up with high-quality rivals to the iPad, and all of them widened the market by offering handy 7-inch screens instead of the iPad's lap-sized 10 inches. In an unusually defensive move, Apple reinforced the credibility of the mini-tablet market by launching its own iPad Mini; but its price position (£269 entry level) could not match Amazon's £129 basic Kindle Fire, nor the £159 asked by Google for its basic Nexus 7. At the top end of the market, the iPad was joined by two well-received and full-sized Samsung products, the Galaxy Tab2 and the Nexus 10, and was again whipped on price (£280 and £319 respectively).
The Christmas season laid bare Apple's fall from pole position: the Kindle Fire was the nation's favourite gift tablet, capturing 35% of the tablets given to adults, compared with the iPad's 24%. The Galaxy Tab and Nexus 10 took 18% of the market, and the iPad Mini barely figured at 5% (although the survey suggests that this may have been a popular present for the under-18s who didn't feature in the survey). In all, mainstream Android devices took a 60% share, more than twice Apple's 29% - and in doing so echoed the smartphone market, where Android phones have been outselling iPhones two-to-one for the last year or so. To translate that into potential readers, YouGov estimates that today more than 12 million UK adults own a tablet. That's quite a lot.
What can we, as publishers working with brands, take away from these numbers? I think there are three clear conclusions, a nasty conundrum, and an inescapable fact.
The three clear conclusions are:
- Publishers and brands can't go on pretending that the tablet market is mostly or even only about the iPad. It is going to become a niche, top-end device, just as iMacs are within the desktop market. If you go on ignoring Android tablets, you are turning your back on what will soon become the majority of tablet users.
- The tablet market is now horribly fragmented, and designing native publishing apps has become a bit of a nightmare. Designing apps for Android now means that you have to produce a 7-inch version, a 10-inch version, and a separate version for the Kindle, which irritatingly uses its own variation of Android. Designing iPad native apps now requires three builds - two at 10 inches (Retina and pre-Retina), and a 7-inch version for the mini. Who on earth can afford to pay for all those different apps, let alone adjust the design of each issue of each publication six times over? Which leads me to conclude...
- ...that publishers trying to take sensible advantage of the boom in tablet readers are increasingly going to be attracted by design-once-publish-anywhere approaches to getting their publications onto the most popular tablets. In the short term, this may mean going for one of the frankly rather expensive packages out there that promise to churn out your publications in different sizes more or less automatically. But in the long term, the most cost-effective route to market is definitely going to be via responsive web apps using HTML5 (here's a quick primer on responsive apps and HTML5's publishing potential).
And so to the nasty conundrum... Publishing which relies on ubiquitous fast internet access can't get into full swing until 4G becomes universal in the UK - and that process won't be completed until 2015. That means investing in HTML5 in 2013 won't work well for some, perhaps most, readers.
Therefore, the inescapable fact is that publishers working for brands do not, right now, have a clear and simple path to follow in sculpting a really strong and sustainable publishing strategy for mobile devices. That will come, I am sure - just not for the next year or so.