Consumer product strategists, even those not in direct competition with Apple, should pay attention to the iPad, because it’s defying common assumptions about consumer technology adoption.

In Tuesday’s earnings call, Apple announced that it has sold 3.27 million iPads in the quarter ending June 26. On June 22, it had announced shipping 3 million iPads—that’s 270,000 units in less than one week.

In our previously published forecast, we projected that US consumers would buy 3.5 million tablets in 2010 and 8.4 million in 2011, and that 59 million US consumers would own a tablet by 2015. Critics comparing our numbers to Apple’s have missed some important differences: Apple’s published numbers are global (in 10 countries so far, and 9 more starting July 23), consumer and enterprise (Apple claims that 50% of Fortune 100 countries are “deploying or piloting” the iPad), and represent shipments, not necessarily sell-through. Our numbers are US-only, consumer-only, and represent final sales to consumers net of any returns — all of which help explain why our numbers will always be lower than Apple’s.

However, based on new data from Forrester’s consumer surveys, as well as Apple’s rate of “millioning,” we think our initial forecast was conservative, especially in the short term, and we plan to publish an update later this year once we have more supply-side and consumer data.

A core tenet of Forrester is that our research is objective, transparent, and rigorous. We’re continually monitoring new industry and consumer data to inform our analysis. In this case, we missed the mark regarding our short-term forecast, so we’re revisiting our initial work.

One of the assumptions we made in our initial forecast was that the iPad would behave like other similar consumer devices in its first year of adoption: When it went on sale in April, we assumed that sales would be strong based on pent-up demand for a hyped product; we then assumed that sales would slow in a summer slump, as is common with consumer technology purchases; and that sales would spike again in the holiday season. But the iPad isn’t behaving like other consumer devices: It has a steamroller of momentum behind it that indicates incredibly strong demand for this entirely new form factor.

The iPad’s momentum is helped by the full-force ad campaign and store real estate that Apple has devoted to it (Apple doesn’t devote the same resources to all new products, such as Apple TV). The iPad is also helped by the social influence of iPad buyers — according to Forrester’s data, the average iPad buyer is 20% more likely to use Facebook and 40% more likely to use Twitter than the average US online consumer, and has more friends and followers than the average US online consumer.

Let me share some data with you some very recent data from Forrester’s Consumer Technographics surveys that indicates how strong consumer demand is for tablets. This data was collected in an online survey of 3,990 US online consumers in June 2010. The survey has a +/- 5% margin of error.

  • Awareness of the iPad is incredibly high. In our June survey, only 5% of US online consumers claimed that they had never heard of the Apple iPad before the survey. We asked the same question of consumers in a May survey (also of 4,000 US online consumers), and 17% said they’d never heard of the iPad. For context, three years after the Amazon Kindle’s release (another entirely new type of product), 25% of US online consumers in the same survey said they’d never heard of a Kindle.
  • Nearly 10 million US consumers say they own or intend to buy an iPad. In our June survey, 1.3%, or 2.5 million, US online consumers reported already owning an Apple iPad, and an additional 3.8% (7.4 million) say they intend to buy one. (No time frame was specified in the survey question.)

Now, we know from decades of consumer survey experience that you can’t believe everything consumers tell you — not every person who says they are going to do something actually ends up doing it; in addition, the margin of error in the survey must be taken into consideration. Still, these numbers suggest that iPad adoption will be rapid on the front end. We anticipate making major adjustments to our 2010 and 2011 numbers, but we believe our long-term forecast is on solid ground as of writing this blog post. Our five-year forecast was already aggressive — 59 million consumers owning a tablet in 2015 means that 27% of US online consumers will own one. Rather than a typical S-curve adoption, we now see tablet adoption spiking upfront rather than gradually accelerating to a hypergrowth point, with a very short period of takeover time (the time it takes for a technology to go from 10% to 90% of its ultimate market saturation).

A big takeaway here for consumer product strategists (and analysts like me who advise them) is that new products — with enough demand and buzz behind them — can break the old patterns of technology adoption. If you’ve seen evidence of other products breaking the S-curve pattern, I’d be interested in knowing about it. Are S-curves shrinking, or are tablets an anomaly?