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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Sorry Tomi, I disagree

I know Tomi Ahonen pretty well - we regularly encounter each other both virtually on our respective blogs, on the ForumOxford mobile discussion board, and in real life at conferences.

Some things we broadly agree on - the importance of SMS, the non-importance of many location-based services, and so on.

But on one area, we definitely don't see eye-to-eye - the relative importance of PC and mobile-based Internet access. Now, there's a million definition shades of grey here, so it's difficult to be definitive. Does a 3G modem in a laptop count as PC, mobile, or both? What about a dual-mode handset connected via WiFi to home broadband? Or via a femtocell? There's also the metrics of users, usage, traffic, sessions, money, purchases etc etc.

It's complex.

But whichever way you slice it, I have to flat-out disagree with his assertions in an otherwise great "state of the nation" post here about mobile in 2008.

"So out of all 1.3 billion internet users, only 37% access exclusively by personal computers (desktops and laptops). This includes all access from internet cafes and computer labs and shared PCs. Another 33% of internet users access by both PC and mobile. And already 30% of all internet access in 2007 was exclusively from mobile phones"

This runs completely counter to my "smell test". It just doesn't pass some basic "sanity" filters. Who are these 30% of Internet users who *only* use mobile phones? Which country? Which demographics? That's 400 million people who supposedly only ever get online via mobile. Against that backdrop, even the 20 million or so 3G laptop users is a rounding error (most of whom use other means as well, anyway). This can only mean actual mobile phones, over actual mobile networks.

How many of these 400 million people have you met? I knew precisely one in the UK last year - who was just using the browser on a SonyEricsson featurephone, until she moved house & got ADSL.

NOTE - my new estimates for mobile/fixed Internet user base are here

I find it hard to believe that *anyone* in either Japan or Korea *never* uses a PC for Internet access - that implies that they don't have access to PCs at home, work or school. Yes, maybe some Japanese *mostly* use their phones, but that doesn't add to that big a chunk of either the 33% or 30%. But lets be generous - maybe there are 10 million - maybe even 20 million - mobile-only users in those countries.

Which still leaves over 300 million of these mysterious cutting-edge handset web warriors to account for.

In Western Europe, the number of mobile-only Internet users is tiny, with the possible (small but very fast growing) exception of people using laptops with 3G. But most of those also have LAN access at work, or also use WiFi which to my mind counts as fixed-wireless access as it doesn't go via a GGSN in a mobile network, or (usually) involve authentication against a mobile operator's HLR. I doubt that there is a single user of FaceBook or MySpace that hasn't set up their page on a PC, even if they sometimes access it on a handset.

I haven't been to India, so I don't know the details first hand. But given the usual mismatch between prepay/low-end-phones/Internet access I'd be surprised if there are that many there either. Anyway, judging from this article, there's only about 50m Internet users in India in total. Let's be generous, and say that maybe there's another 10-20m mobile only users there (if any reader has a better view, let me know)

My gut feel (and I haven't done this methodically, I'll admit) is that there *might* be 50 million mobile-only users worldwide. Maybe 60m if we relax some definitions - laptop+3G, include some use of operator WAP portals or walled gardens (well, it's using the browser.....)

Overall - I reckon it's more like 3% than 30%.

Tomi - I'm happy to change my mind on this & apologise if you can point me towards this group of 400 million. I know you always try to evangelise what's possible in mobile. But I seriously think you need to take another look at your numbers in this case.

EDIT - some more data

From the Korean National Internet Development Agency, a brand new 400-page report on "Survey on the Computer and Internet Usage", gives the statistics of 34.4m total Internet users in total. 98.6% use a desktop PC some or all of the time. 51% of mobile phone users have ever accessed the Internet, and 25% have done so in the month previous to the survey. Given that 84% of Internet users have mobile phones, this equates to 21% being regular mobile Internet access users.

So basically, we can write off Korea as being a candidiate for supplying more than a tiny handful of this huge volume of mobile-only Internet users. Maybe 0.5-1.0m at the absolute most.

For Japan, it's difficult to find a full analysis from 2007. But from 2006 "The latest research by Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication shows that there are more mobile Internet users (approx. 69.23mil) than PC Internet users (approx. 66.01mil) in Japan for the first time in history. It also shows 57% (approx. 48.62mil) of the Internet users (approx. 85.29mil) are using both PC and mobile devices to access Internet." So therefore 21m were mobile only, and 18m were PC-only. OK, that's a bit larger than I'd estimated, but not that much.

So, together Korea & Japan represent 20-25m mobile-only users.

Some good 2007 China data, from an official source, is here
96% of Internet users use desktop PCs, although 27% use phones & 21% use laptops so there's quite a lot of overlap. Analysing the stats suggests that maybe 2-3% are mobile-only. Out of 162m users in total, that gives, at most 5m and quite probably more like 3-4m

Indian statistics seem to be a bit contradictory. This article claims 3x the number of mobile users as fixed, but only seems to focus on subscriptions (and not multiple users/PC) while this report suggests a huge % of Internet cafe users who obviously don't 'subscribe' at all. This report from an Internet/Mobile trade association doesn't mention mobile access at all. This presentation suggests 13m "regular" mobile Internet users, but also seems to suggest a lot of "mobile Internet" access is actually to walled gardens via WAP, which to my mind is something a bit different. Sifting through all of this, I reckon my original estimate of 10-20m mobile-only users looks possibly a bit high: 12-15 sounds better.

So... scores so far:

Korea - <1m
Japan - 20-25m
India - 12-15m
China - 3-5m

Total above - 35-45m

I can't see any way the rest of the world is going to add up to another 50m+ mobile-only users. Russia? Indonesia? Brazil? other low-PC penetration markets? Doesn't see feasible so far.

So if the total number of Internet users worldwide is 1.3bn, the proportion using cellular only is well below 10%.


Niklas said...

Thanks for a good post once again. I can not add up the figures from Tomi either.

Anonymous said...

Tomi Ahonen is to "Internet from mobile phones only" as Tom Cruise is to Scientology:


Anonymous said...

A good way to figure out how popular true HTML browsing in a country really is, is to check whether the mobile operators offer flat rate data plans. In Korea, for example, flat rate mobile data plans do not exist making web browsing prohibitively expensive to the user.

Paul Jardine said...

I'm with you, Dean. I always feel like I want to agree with Tomi, but he comes out with some wild statistics and conclusions about how mobile phones will be the only thing used by people for any access in future. On one level, I agree, access will probably be personal, rather than communal. But, to paraphrase you, what's the difference between a mobile phone and an Asus EEE running Skype.
The mobile internet is not about the presentation (e.g. WAP or HTML or CHTML etc, etc), but about the applications and their uses.