Mobile operators are losing their grip on the tablet market

Tablets are attracting a new category of consumers who want better usability than a smartphone without the bulk and complexity of a laptop. Tablet vendors have worked hard to break away from current smartphone/laptop doctrines, while making touchscreens a revelation to those unfamiliar with how to interact with email and the Web.

Altogether, tablets can justifiably be seen as enabling a new sector of society with mobile computing and communications. The market potential for tablets would appear to be strong as an increasing number of manufacturers enter the market with different form factors and price points--accepting that Apple's iPad remains the benchmark product today.

An indication of the market potential comes from Informa Telecom & Media, which claims in a new study that over the next five years retail sales of tablets will grow from $34.5 billion in 2011 to $121.5 billion in 2016.

Crucially however, the market research firm noted that the consumers increasingly prefer to purchase tablets directly from the vendor, or from independent outlets, such as Carphone Warehouse, Amazon and the big-brand supermarkets.

This raises the question of what role mobile operators can have in this burgeoning sector--apart from supplying a 3G or LTE SIM cards and data plan.

Their lack of imagination in grasping the tablet opportunity indicates a punishing lack of retail awareness for this new class of mobile user who continues to believe that operators only sell phones bundled with a bewildering array of tariffs. The major consumer electronics retailers have leapt on the tablet opportunity by revamping their stores to provide a specific focus on these devices with the aim of educating potential buyers. Selling a data plan then becomes comparatively simple once the buyer is hooked into the delights of a touchscreen tablet.

Meanwhile, the likelihood of major online and High Street retailers further encroaching on operator's current sales territory looks very high as smartphones continue to become more affordable. This shift to more sophisticated mobile devices--tablets and smartphones-- could isolate operators further from consumers leaving them as little more than providers of smart and affordable networks.

Our once-mighty fixed-line service providers have struggled with this trend for a decade or more, and have become resigned to being data pipes. Can mobile operators do otherwise? --Paul