May 10, 2012, 3:09 PM

Should sales on tablets count as m-commerce?

Retailers say yes. Some experts say no.

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Back in April 2010 when Apple Inc. unveiled the iPad, as a veteran mobile commerce reporter my first reaction was that this was not a mobile device. It can’t fit in your pocket, it’s not something you’d carry everywhere like you do a smartphone, it typically requires you to be hooked up to a non-mobile Wi-Fi network. What’s mobile about this device?

I shied away from including the words “iPad” and “mobile” in the same story at first. I wanted to wait and see what my readers concluded. They quickly came to a conclusion: A tablet is a mobile device and sales on tablets will be included in the category of mobile commerce. Every single retailer I talked with during the course of 2010, and I do mean every single one, told me tablet sales were mobile sales. And if that’s what the industry says, that’s how I have to report it. That’s the reality on the ground.

But I must admit my thinking changed on the subject as time went by. I fairly quickly came to realize that tablets are indeed mobile; I saw people carrying them around all over the place. And many have 3G wireless connectivity, so they don’t require one to be stationary at a hotspot. The overarching factor is that like smartphones, tablets cut the tether PCs have to desks. Tablets enable mobility. And selling on tablets requires a different approach than selling on PCs.

Though the industry has spoken, some still disagree.

“Lumping e-commerce conducted via a tablet such as an iPad or Kindle Fire with e-commerce conducted via a mobile phone is misleading when we collectively call them mobile commerce. I believe e-commerce conducted via tablets is not mobile commerce,” says Mark Beccue, a senior analyst who specializes in m-commerce at ABI Research.

Mark dropped me a note asking why I count commerce on tablets as mobile commerce, and I gave him my explanation above. But he begs to differ.

Mark says during the next five years tablets will displace a significant percentage of home computers because tablets are more versatile and cheaper than desktops. He says they are devices used in the home and connected primarily by Wi-Fi. Mark estimates only 11% of tablets are connected like smartphones to wireless networks.

So Mark’s conclusion is that retailers should not count tablets as mobile commerce but instead count commerce by device: desktop/laptops, tablets and smartphones. “We should throw out the term mobile commerce altogether,” he says. “We have three distinct device types from which consumers will conduct e-commerce. Each of these devices offers unique capabilities and use-cases. Each will require specific plans on the part of retailers to optimize their capabilities and use-cases. And each type of device will generate unique e-commerce results.”

I think what Mark suggests has merit. And I know that retailers today are keeping track of tablet sales and smartphone sales. Rue La La told me just the other day that of their mobile commerce sales, 70% stem from smartphones and 30% from tablets. Retailers know these are different devices and require different approaches, but they say they both are mobile and count sales for both together as mobile commerce.

Mobile commerce has become its own distinct channel. It deserves its name and deserves to be treated separately. And smartphones and tablets are the devices on which mobile commerce is conducted.

To Mark and others who feel tablets should not be counted as mobile commerce, I know where you’re coming from. I used to feel that way myself. But the tablet does enable mobility, and retailers across the board say tablet sales are mobile commerce. I think the jury has spoken.

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