Monday, November 26, 2007

The Great Mobile Internet Myth

I’d hate to think how many times I’ve seen presentations at trade shows and vendor events where they trot out figures of how many computers there are in the developing world compared to mobile phones and then without missing a beat proclaim that the mobile will be the access device for these markets to get on the Net. Sure, there are more mobile phones in use than PCs in “emerging” markets, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will be jumping online with them. It’s only now that I’m using the mobile Internet that I’ve realised this.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not having another dig at the mobile Internet. In fact, I’m currently enjoying my experience of finding out what it’s capable of (and not capable of). As a tech journo and reasonably early adopter, it’s my role to check out these things – and having access to the latest phones for testing purposes certainly helps. Your average Chinese, Indian or Thai taxi driver, labourer or office worker is not likely to be in the same situation.

For a start, the majority of phones sold in emerging markets are low-end devices that are not even capable of getting on the Internet. Even in the developed world, the number of people toting so-called smartphones is still slim, perhaps 10 percent of the market, tops. If they did want one of the new-fangled smartphones, they’re likely going to be handing over the equivalent of a few months wages to get it. Here in Bangkok, for example, the average smartphone goes for around 20-25,000 baht (upwards of US$650). Yet a decent desktop PC can be had for half that amount.

Then there’s the mobile data fees themselves. Thailand again is fairly reasonable in comparison to some countries, with an unlimited plan going for around US$30. But for half that you can have a fixed broadband connection that is way faster. It’s also a lot more reliable – let’s face it if everyone suddenly jumps online, a typical mobile cell (3G or 2.5G) is going to be close to unusable.

But the cost of the devices, the cost of mobile data service and issues such as speed and reliability are not the only things stopping the mobile from being the dominant access means in the developing world (although together they represent a pretty decent stumbling block). The other thing that I’ve come to realise is that most of the good Internet services for the mobile nearly all require you to be a regular Internet user in the first place.

Let’s take the services I’ve been using as an example. One of the most useful has been Gmail on the mobile. Google has created a small app that you can download to the mobile and it works great – but of course you have to have an existing Gmail account first (you could, theoretically, sign up on the mobile, but it would be painful). Another one I’ve noticed a lot of people using is Facebook for the mobile. Again, it complements your regular, desktop Facebook account rather than being purely for the mobile. There are plenty of similar examples, such as my Fantasy Premier League team, which I can manage via the mobile but which we won’t go into given that I’m losing. The point is you only use it on the mobile when you’re signed up on the desktop first.

Even some of the services designed specifically for the mobile, such as Nokia’s Widsets (widgets for the mobile) and Mosh (content sharing) require you to sign up via computer and are best configured and managed from the desktop. Sure, they both have some great mobile-only apps, but the people using it are still going to be heavy users of the desktop Internet. And I think this holds for most things to do with the mobile Internet – the way I see it, it will complement the fixed Internet rather than people using it exclusively.

So the next time someone tells you that mobile devices outnumber PCs in the developing world, don’t let them hoodwink you into thinking they’ll be using them to get on the Internet. At least not until they’re already using the fixed Internet first. – Geoff Long

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