Tablets. With about 50 of them launched at this year's Consumer Electronic Show, some wry observers dubbed it ‘Tablet World 2011.' Of course, the world's best selling tablet, the iPad, wasn't even there. 

In case you still have any doubt, tablets are here to stay. "Our forecast for media tablets is over 200 million worldwide by 2014," reports Carolina Milanesi, research vice president, Consumer Technologies and Markets at Gartner. With so many of your customers using tablets, reading about tablets, or waiting eagerly to get their hands on the newest iPad or Android 3.0 devices, it's time to ask: Should you make a tablet app for your business?

The answer is likely a yes if 1) your product or service is one where having tablet access could benefit customers; and 2) your customers are the type who use tablets. 

"The number one reason for having a tablet app is if you have a younger audience," says Damon Brown, a technology blogger and author of Damon Brown's Simple Guide to the iPad. "The younger they are, the more likely that they're going to connect to your services through an app, particularly a tablet app. So if your customer base skews young, you definitely want to have an app presence."

That's especially true if your customers have lots of disposable cash. "We target guys in their 20s with incomes over $100,000 in the major markets, so iOS powered devices are a big deal for us," says Chris Steib, director of product development at Thrillist, which provides insider tips on dining, shopping, and events in major cities. "Users of Apple computers and iPhones and the Safari browser access our service at five or six times the market average. So developing for the iPad was a no-brainer."

Thrillist execs first discussed an iPad app last April, two or three months after the device came out, Steib says. Then a major website upgrade and other technology projects occupied the company's attention through the rest of the year. "We looked up, and it was January, and about 15 million iPads had been sold," Steib says. "Nothing lights a fire under us like 15 million devices -- and it was our demographic that was buying them."

The Thrillist iPad app, its iPhone and Android apps, and its daily emails, are all free to consumers, but Steib predicts the iPad app will increase the company's advertising revenue. "It's a monetizable opportunity," he says. "Ultimately I'd like to see us sell our mobile services as one package to advertisers. We could offer them our 650,000 iPhone users, plus however many iPad users we have. It would make a really attractive package."

iOS v. Android
Thrillist, which released its first Android smartphone app in late December, is waiting to see how users respond before considering an app targeted to Android tablets. In general, though developers complain about Apple's tight control over its iTunes market, they agree that developing tablet software for the iPad is a much more straightforward proposition than trying to do the same for Android. While Apple's iOS operating system runs on exactly three types of devices (iPhones, iPods, and iPads), there's an endless array of Android-powered devices with different screen sizes and variable hardware. 

To complicate things even more, there are different versions of Android in the marketplace too, with the first Android 3.0 (or "Honeycomb") devices now coming out at the same time that companies continue to ship products running Android 2.2 ("Froyo"), Android 2.3 ("Gingerbread"), and even Android 2.0 ("Eclair").

And once you've figured out which screen size, hardware, and Android version to target, you'll also have to put some thought into how to get your app into customers' devices. With the notable exceptions of the popular Samsung Galaxy Tab and the brand-new Motorola Xoom, most older Android tablets can't use Google's Android App Market, at least for the moment, because it only works with the latest Android 3.0 tablet OS. 

So, to reach these customers you may need to offer your apps in the various carriers' and device makers' marketplaces, and perhaps some of the many third-party Android app stores as well. 

"It's a complex issue," says Uwe Maurer, director of business development at Ambient Design, which makes a tablet app called ArtRage. ArtRage software allows users to virtually paint using paintbrushes and other tools. It runs on PCs and Macs, but the company began selling an iPad version last September after customers started requesting it. Ambient Design is still pondering whether to release an Android app, Maurer says. "With different versions of the hardware and the operating system and different stores, it's much more difficult to monetize."   

Should You Start from Scratch?
ArtRage can't work effectively on a small screen, so there is no smartphone version, but that's unusual. Most companies contemplating a tablet app already have a smartphone app, and if they don't they should probably consider taking that step first.

"The installed base is much larger, so small businesses can reach more of their customers through a smartphone app," Milanesi says. "Once you create an app for the smartphone, you have a basic app for tablets [because most Android tablets can run the smartphone version in a small window], and that might be good enough in the short term."

Indeed, if all you need is a larger version of your smartphone app, little effort is required. Android apps adjust for the larger tablet screen size and iPhone apps can run on an iPad, either at the small iPhone screen size or expanded. But, Brown says, "it's becoming the norm for apps to be written so they're compatible with both. The software automatically recognizes when you're on an iPad, and it'll format correctly and perhaps have a couple of extra features, such as more columns of flight choices in an airline app."

But Steib argues that this is the wrong approach, because what people do with tablets is not the same as what they do with smartphones. "We considered using our iPhone app code, but it's a completely different user experience," he says. "To think a user will engage with our content the same way on a tablet as on a website or a smartphone is misleading."

With a smartphone, he explains, people use the Thrillist app on the go, usually to find a good bar, restaurant, or shop near where they happen to be. The entire engagement might take 45 seconds.

"People aren't going to pull out their iPads to find out what the nearest restaurant is," says Steib.

So what will they do with them instead? The device is relatively new and many users are still figuring that out. But for the moment, Steib says, "Apple has dictated the use case of the iPad with its marketing. The ads show people with their shoes off reading the newspaper, or playing games at the kitchen table with their iPad." 

In his view, tablet apps should be primarily for fun. "We're trying to create an experience that will be more tactile, and have more whimsy," he says. "That's really what this device is all about."

Of course, the playing field is wide open. No matter which app you create, even if it is a serious accounting program or one that helps patients at a clinic make a reservation, the idea is to provide a way to generate revenue, increase exposure, and please your customers.