"There are 4.5 billion mobile subscribers"
"The next billion Internet users will be on mobile"
"160m smartphones are sold annually"
"LTE will deliver 100Mbit/s speeds"
These all make great soundbites, but they don't bear close scrutiny. Of course, much of this debate revolves around definitions and semantics, but the point here is to drill behind the figures to understand *how they are derived* and *what they actually mean for the mobile business*
Instead, the industry has a very bad habit of using the best "marketing" numbers to make itself look successful and important, even if the reality is rather different. That's sort-of fine from a PR point of view, but unfortunately many insiders believe the headlines and use them as a basis for business planning.
Two examples have caught my eye today, both quite closely linked.
Firstly, my regular "sparring partner" Tomi Ahonen has a serious rant at Microsoft about its claims that smartphones are still in their infancy, and that PCs are still dominating the computing industry. Yes, you can argue that if you add together all the Apple, Symbian, Linux, RIM and Windows devices, you get a larger number than Ballmer quoted in his speech. However, that obscures two important caveats:
- Many "smartphones" are locked to additional applications, especially in Japan. Comparing them to a user-controlled smartphone is disengenuous. Many bank ATM machines, or retail PoS terminals have ordinary Intel/Windows boxes in their innards... but most observers would not call them PCs.
- Most "smartphones", especially older Nokia Series 60 devices, are not bought or used for their "smartness". Apart from Apple iPhones, very few are sold with "mandatory" flatrate or other "decent" data plans. I saw lots of "remaindered" Nokia N-series phones during my recent trip to India - a market without 3G networks.
- As I estimated the other day, the total number of 3.5G smartphones with good dataplans is almost exactly the same as the number of 3.5G-connected PCs.
- Despite Tomi's rant at Microsoft, it's instructive to note that the growth curve on netbook shipments (15-20m in 2009, after first introduction in 2007) far exceeds that of the early years of smartphones. I think there is a reasonable probability that operators switch their subsidy and emphasis to netbooks or dongles and away from (some) smartphones
- Smartphones are *expensive*. The Nokia N97 I have in front of me, costs 2x the price of the Samsung NC10 I'm writing this post on. Guess which gives me a better Internet experience. And which has a better battery life.
The other example is related. Two presenters at the conference this morning cited headline analyst figures along the lines of "1.2 billion users of mobile Internet by 2012", typically comparing it with today's roughly 1.3 billion fixed internet users and 400m-odd broadband lines.
Leaving aside the obvious point that there is no "mobile Internet", these figures really don't convey the whole truth. They lump in everything from PCs with 3G/WiMAX right through to GPRS featurephones on which someone accidentally hits the browser icon to go to the operator's homepage.
Most developers (certainly in developed markets) now have a view of a mobile Internet user as a BlackBerry or iPhone user with regular, daily access to email and the web, plus widgets and maybe an appstore. As mentioned above, that population at the moment is probably less than 50m people (ie the 40m plus another 10m of EDGE/3.0G Internet users).
I also see a lot of assumptions that everyone with a 3G-enabled PC will be an active user - not realistic, as only a % will actually pay for connectivity services. Many also forget how few prepay users (still!) get access to mobile data, especially at a reasonable price. 1.2 billion is approximately the number of global individual users with postpaid contracts today.
At the end of 2012, my own Mobile Broadband Computing report from a couple of months ago estimated active users of non-phone devices as:
- 170m for PCs (embedded or dongle)
- 20m with MIDs
Note that these are "users" not "subscribers". Most will not have traditional "subscriptions" but will use connectivity through various adhoc or bundled business models.
I haven't done any formal forecasts for smartphone usage, but my (very approximate) take would be, again for end-2012 [3.5 years from now]
- maybe 250-300m regular active users of flatrate data + highend phones equivalent to today's iPhone. Most will be contract monthly customers.
- maybe 200m more occasional users (maybe on-portal or widget) mobile web users with an OK-ish browser. Mix of contract and prepay.
- a fairly long tail of WAP users doing occasional access - mostly in emerging markets, but hobbled by continued poor availability of mobile data services to 2G prepay users. These are interesting from a statistical point of view (especially if you're trying to make a point), but are not really Internet users in the way that their counterparts with PCs or in cybercafes view the world.
[Sidenote on this mythical next 1 billion Internet users being on mobile: I recently drove 4000km through India, through big cities & small villages & rural towns. Advertising for mobile was absolutely everywhere. But <1% was for mobile data - and most of that was for SMS cricket results or similar. I saw ads for dongles in Varanasi and Mumbai, posters for Blackberries in Mumbai as well, WAP portals in a couple of other towns - and precisely zero people who were obviously using the web on a mobile device. I've been unable to get to the bottom of the 10's of millions of "mobile Internet" users cited by some national authorities, but I suspect the definitions are as loose as possible]
Put another way, I'd expect the population of high-end mobile Internet users to be about 500m by end-2012, split about 40:60 between PCs and smartphones.
Let's get rid of some of the noisy hype, and focus on real, actionable numbers. It's starting to get embarassing to see overblown figures repeated continually - it suggests insecurity or ignorance, like sticking your fingers in your ears.