Since Apple unveiled the iPad to the world, tablet devices have
attracted an immense spotlight. To some, they represent the future of
computing, publishing, advertising and, well, life as we know it.

But is the smoke from the tablet market obscuring even bigger fires
elsewhere? According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center’s
Internet & American Life Project, e-reader ownership is growing
much, much faster than tablet ownership.

Between November 2010 and May 2011, the number of adults in the United States with an e-reader has doubled. Today, 12% of the adult population owns one, marking the first time ownership has surpassed the 10% mark.

Tablets have grown quickly too, but can’t keep up the same pace. In November 2010, 4% of adults in the United States owned a tablet device. That figure jumped to 7% just two months later in January 2011, but sits at just 8% today.

The slowing growth in the number of tablet owners begs the question: has the tablet hype gone too far, too fast? If Pew’s numbers, which are based on a survey of more than 2,000 adults, are to be believed, it’s hard not to answer ‘yes‘ to that question.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that tablets aren’t important. They almost certainly are. But excitement over what tablets could represent may distract from the fact that the true potential of tablets won’t be reached for some time, and that the real impact tablets will have on computing, publishing and advertising is still yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, tablets haven’t slowed sales of e-readers.

So what does this all mean?

Publishers

For publishers, being ahead of the curve may very well be preferable to being behind the curve. The fact that so many traditional publishers jumped on the bandwagon early on demonstrates a refreshing eagerness to embrace new technology, not fight it. At the same time, eagerness alone doesn’t pay the bills.

Many publishers are still struggling to create viable tablet strategies. The New York Post is blocking iPad users from content it makes freely available on the web, publishers are trying to develop iPad-specific web experiences when they really don’t need to, and some media moguls are throwing big money at tablet-only publications.

Given that a small minority of adults actually owns a tablet device, many of these things make little sense.

Advertisers

Advertisers, like publishers, have been eager to dip their toes in the tablet market so as to be ahead of the curve. Yet just like publishers, they really haven’t seen returns yet.

Given this, advertisers should probably be careful not to invest a disproportionate amount of time and money into tablet campaigns until the market is more developed.

Developers

Naturally, the tablet is an appealing device for developers. This, of course, is particularly true for the iPad because of Apple’s App Store, and some developers are already cashing in.

Yet Pew’s survey highlights that there may be substantial opportunities in the e-reader space as well. Barnes & Noble, for instance, is courting developers to the NOOK, and even if it’s not nearly as sexy, e-readers currently represent a larger and faster-growing market for developers to explore.