The smartphone revolution may be unstoppable, but it’s only just begun

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Last month, we gave you the low-down on internet prophet Mary Meeker’s 2012 Internet Trends. One of the things that Meeker pointed out is that mobile traffic is growing at a tremendous rate, accounting for nearly 10% of all internet traffic. Interestingly, 3G subscriptions only account for 18% of the world’s total mobile subscriptions.

The enormous number of 3G subscriptions that took place in emerging markets like India and Brazil suggest that mobile is exploding in a way that very few other technologies ever achieve in a year. The driving force for this is the smartphone. But analysts are suggesting that the smartphone revolution has only just begun.

Since the birth of the smartphone back in 1992, with the arrival of the IBM Simon, adoption in the United States has been fairly gradual. It has taken nearly 10 years for the market to reach half-way to full saturation. That means that after 10 years, only 50% of the American population is using a smartphone. To be fair, compared to the rise of the telephone, and then that of the mobile phone, smartphone adoption has been pretty rapid. But there’s still half of the American population to sell the new devices to. This isn’t where the real money is going to lie. Based on the statistics that we saw in Meeker’s presentation, there is a huge market still open to vendors who are trying to improve global reach.

Since the lion’s share of the mobile market is found in emerging market countries where many users can’t afford the price of a new iPhone, it seems that Android-based devices are likely to catch on much more easily. Since Google has focussed only on providing the underlying operating system and has kept the source code for this largely open, it has created an environment that allows vendors to create much cheaper hardware to meet the demands of these markets.

While Apple saw immense growth in the Asia-Pacific region last quarter, I personally believe that this will eventually taper off and Apple will have to face up to the fact that its tight control over its hardware and underlying software will ultimately limit its reach. This becomes more apparent when you start viewing the stats that are available at Our Mobile Planet. While iOS holds the lead in countries like the UK, Australia, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Android leaps to the fore as soon as you look at some of the emerging economies such as Brazil, China, Argentina and Mexico.

It is interesting to look at some of the driving forces behind smartphone adoption to see how growth is likely to play out. Last year GSM Arena did a survey to find out what people used their mobile phones for most. Admittedly, the survey is limited to its readership, so is hardly representative of a global population. I find it interesting that the major common factors were nearly all things that people can do on your average feature phone.

Why this is so interesting is because the survey is actually aimed at readers who are tech-savvy, particularly with regard to mobile phones. With a few exceptions, such as participation within social networks, GPS and mapping facilities, and web-browsing, it seems that there is still space to find some major differentiators to increase smartphone adoption. The survey finds that video calling is the most sought after feature on a phone. Of course, this sort of functionality is limited by the sheer bandwidth that video actually requires. Since most mobile ISPs cap usage, video is a feature that actually increases cost of ownership. In emerging economies, ISPs that provide greater bandwidth and lower cost for network utilisation, may be able to hook into the needs of exactly these kinds of users.

Meanwhile, my own smartphone recently died a horrible death and I was forced to revert to using a feature phone. The amazing thing is that although I miss my smartphone tremendously, I am actually beginning to find my feature phone almost as useful and certainly not lacking in a few hidden benefits. While I certainly miss the GPS and mapping capabilities from my smartphone, my old feature phone does most of what I need.

Three things have really become apparent to me since I switched back to using a feature phone. First, smartphones really do have crap battery life. I was lucky to see the day through without charging my smartphone. At the moment I am getting about a week of usage between charges on this old Nokia 6300 I had kicking about. The second thing that stands out is that I actually feel more comfortable with a real keypad. Okay, that may just be me, and I did prefer QWERTY layout to having three-letters per key. However, there is a lot to be said for a tangible set of buttons that you can press. It’s a lot easier to feel when you have actually pressed a key, and its harder to hit a wrong key. I find that I can text one-handed… which is something I certainly couldn’t do on my smartphone. The final point is that my 6300 is just so much more portable than any smartphone I’ve owned, and its hardly the most compact phone. I know that there are some small, thin and lightweight smartphones on the market, but they usually sacrifice many of the features of a smartphone to get there. After all, when you shrink down the screen, browsing the web or watching videos or navigating maps just becomes tedious.

What I’m trying to get at is that there are good reasons to hold out against the smartphone revolution. Many of these are hardware related. Certainly many of the same limitations apply to feature-phones and their ilk, and you may disagree about having a set of real buttons to push, but when you’re paying a few hundred dollars more for a smartphone that you need to charge three or four times as often it had better do something awesome to make up for it.

I’m not saying that smartphones aren’t great, and I’m probably going to switch back pretty soon, but the point is that they are only just breaking onto the scene. Changes in power management and battery technology, improved interface design, improvements to screen technologies that allow for greater portability, a range of other killer apps, and lower pricing both for hardware and for network access are all markets for the picking as the smartphone becomes more ubiquitous.

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  • mkhuluwilliamseyama

    Interesting article, Rowan.

    I know this is a bit off topic, but I have had to go back and use my old SonyEricsson P800 (arguably one of the first “touch screen” phones of its time) 3 months ago and it dawned on me that digital technology advancements have been great for productive use of my time overall, but they have turned me into a multi-tasking super-human who does not have time for simpler things in life anymore.
    Back to the topic. My recent analysis of the South African smartphone market using OurMobilePlanet resulted in 3 articles, starting with this one: http://enitiate.me/2012/06/17/future-of-south-african-smartphone-market-holds-promise-for-mobile-advertising/

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