Currently, Lai pointed out, use of the mobile internet in South Africa is driven by specific apps, such as MXit and Facebook . Many users “don’t even think of themselves as being on the internet, they just see themselves as using the apps on their phones.” But as costs come down and the quality of the mobile web goes up, the behaviour and interaction with the web is likely to broaden and deepen considerably.
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Lai explained that South Africa has a situation where there are very low rates of PC ownership and access to a desktop computer is limited. While most people who access PC’s do so at work or via internet cafes, they do not have vast amounts of leisure time to explore the web via the desktop. That situation is totally reversed in the case of mobile phones where the penetration is very deep, and there is ample time to explore what is on offer. Currently, there are over 20-million South Africans with web-capable mobile phones, and these phones are their primary point of contact with the internet.
Lai forecasted that most of the growth in the mobile web will come from outside of the major urban areas. It will become a vital tool for people in 2nd and 3rd tier cities, and in rural areas. Interestingly, research presented at the conference by mobile web developers, Prezence indicated that the primary demographic of people using the mobile web in South Africa is of young, black males in the LSM 6 category.
One of the principal areas for mobile growth is in the area of entertainment. For people who don’t have access to television, theatre and movies, the mobile web, with its games and social networks, is a vital route for access to the larger world. And for people who live in far-flung areas, the mobile phone is the first device that lets them regularly make contact with people who don’t live in their immediate vicinity.
The greatest obstacle to broader mobile penetration is still the cost of access. Most people are on pay-as-you-go plans, so every time they access the web, they can see the impact in real monetary terms. The high cost of access (which averages out at about R2.00/MB) is the primary reason why there are over 20-million mobile phones in the market that can access the web, but only 12-million which are regularly used to do so.
Dr Lai predicts that within the next two years, there will be a flood of cheaper Android phones coming into the market, which will improve the quality of mobile browsing dramatically. Added to this the drive towards lowering connectivity costs and the future looks bright for the mobile web.
He concluded his presentation by encouraging mobile web developers to start planning for effective ways to engage with this new set of web users who will become a major commercial force in the years to come.