The immense success of Apple’s iPad and the advent of tablet computing is driving a sharp rise in mobile email usage, as well as reshaping what it means to design apps and services for the “small screen,” according to “Email on the Move: The Future of Mobile Messaging,” a study conducted by email certification and reputation monitoring agency Return Path.

Examining when, where and how email is most often read across webmail, desktop and mobile platforms from more than 90 clients over a six-month period, the study “finds explosive growth in mobile email viewership”; explosive meaning an 81% growth rate. Webmail and desktop email viewing isn’t going away, however; rather people are “consuming email anywhere and everywhere they are.”

Though webmail use declined during the study period, it remains the primary means of email use with 48% of the total. Desktop use came in slightly higher at 36% of views with mobile access at around 16%.

Usage patterns vary with the day of the week. “Desktop use remains high through the week, spiking on Wednesdays, and then shows a dramatic drop-off on the weekends,” which is likely due to the prevalence of Windows, and Outlook, on office PCs. Webmail use is lower during the work week, lowest on Wednesdays, with a large increase on weekends. Mobile email usage is more steady during the week, according to Return Path’s study, beginning to rise on Thursdays, going up further on Fridays and Saturdays and then leveling off on Sundays.

ReturnPath attributes the sharp spike in mobile email usage to the success of Apple’s iPad and the emergence of tablet computing, which, the agency says has “redefined“ mobile messaging. “The art of designing for the small screen may prove to be evolving to the art of designing for the reader on the go,” said Bryan Dreller, Return Path product manager. “While still critical to the email design process, rendering quality itself is still secondary to sending the right message at the right time.”

“According to our study, iPad viewership has grown 15% between October 2010 and March 2011 and we expect to continue to see this percentage grow in the coming months with the recent release of iPad 2. Marketers need to adapt to this change in where and when consumers are accessing email and online content.”

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