Narij Sheth of the Wall Street Journal reported that Verizon Wireless is working with Google on a tablet computer “to catch up with iPad host AT&T Inc. in the area of devices that connect to wireless networks.” Verizon Wireless Chief Executive Lowell McAdam capped the announcement by confirming widespread opinion that tablets are part of the “next big wave of opportunities.”

It’s an understatement to say that Lowell doesn’t stand alone in that opinion. Industry analysts ABI Research predicted that the tablet market would reach 57 million by 2015.

No doubt, the iPad will require catching up to. Stan Schroeder reported on Mashable (along with a small army of tech reporters around the country) that Apple had sold 1 million iPad tablets in the first 28 days since launch, which is apparently half the time it took to achieve that milestone with iPhone sales.

So what does this mean for application developers?

NEW OPPORTUNITY…with Low Financial Risk

Even though tablets, mobile internet devices (MIDs) and smartbooks have been available from other manufacturers for quite some time, the nascent installed base didn’t present a particularly lucrative case for mobile app developers. It wasn’t until the iPad morphed from rumor into reality that the developer community got behind it full force, building 5,000 unique apps (Apple press release), which resulted in more than 12 million iPad downloads by iPad users from the Apple App Store in the first month.

That many unique apps is nothing to sneeze at, but we’re surprised it’s not even higher given that developers who bring their iPad app to market are facing far less competition for consumer mindshare (i.e. 5,000 other apps vs. more than 100,000).

Plus, for developers, the financial risk has been relatively low, especially since they’re typically charging more for iPad apps to offset the added cost of developing and testing on this new device, and any concerns they may have had about how strong iPad sales would really be. As developer Igor Pusenjak of Lima Sky told BBC News in March, “We are really testing the waters on pricing. For a lot of us it is an early experiment to see how people will react…”

NEW CHALLENGE… Fragmentation Isn’t Unique to the OS Anymore

Over the last six months, discussion has resurfaced among developers about the challenges of OS fragmentation particularly with open-source platforms like Android. Now, as the iPad ushers in the next phase in the evolution of smart mobile devices, developers face a renewed challenge…device fragmentation.

Sure, hardware diversity has been a challenge for developers in the past. But traditionally, not when dealing with Apple. Suddenly, developers who thought they had a pretty straightforward development path with the buttoned-down Apple OS now face considerable porting issues with the iPad, since it requires a whole new set of specifications primarily due to the larger screen.

In order to scale their app to fit the 9.7 inch screen, a lot of developers are rebuilding their apps from scratch to make sure they’re not pixelated when scaled up, or don’t look like an awkward little postage stamps in the middle of the big iPad screen when unchanged from the standard iPhone size.

The Bottom Line?

Apple developers who want to jump on the tablet bandwagon need to kick into high gear to stand out before the crowd becomes a mob.

And those that once thought they could plug in their iPhone and iPad Touch for testing, and call it a day are going to lose out if they only develop for the iPad and not for all the other manufacturers’ tablets and MIDs that hit the market.

As consumer thirst drives sales of iPads and tablets, as well as MIDs and smartbooks, app developers will have to adjust to the new level of device fragmentation with increased testing and maintenance. It’s not like they haven’t had to adjust before; it’s just that the added hardware diversity adds a new layer of complexity on top of the process, and they’ll have to adjust. Quickly.