The size and nature of the mobile web market

From Gizmodo comes a pointer to this interesting visualisation of the size and nature of the mobile web.

Click image for higher resolution version. Amongst other interesting points,

  • Google dominates mobile search.
  • Nokia and Symbian (which I detest) dominate smartphone sales and mobile OS platforms respectively.
  • Unsurprisingly, the iPhone dominates the mobile web in the US.
  • 29% only use their mobile devices to access the web.
  • 4 billion mobile phones already out there. The number of those who can access a mobile phone is larger.
  • Facebook, surprisingly, is not amongst the top visited mobile websites.
  • SMS is the most used communications tool in the world, by passing email by over 2 billion users.

Are Online Dispute Resolution providers taking note?

Journalism, civil society and mobile networks

Jude Mathurine from Rhodes University has an interesting presentation on the impact of mobile phone based use of social networks in Africa.

I’ve not yet come across a comparable study of new media’s use and impact in Sri Lanka, but the points on slides 3 and 7, noting that the Internet is still an elite medium in Africa, holds true here as well. Jude points to traditional media’s inability to grasp the potential of new media. Many examples of this can also be found in Sri Lanka, including for example this recent post of mine and the use of Wikipedia by the Sunday Times.

Jude’s more interesting submissions are in the slides that follow, looking at the growth of the mobile web in Africa and the use of SMS for citizen journalism. Mobiles in Sri Lanka are still used far more for entertainment and one-to-one communications than as a tool for participating in governance and public oversight. The participation in new forms of journalism through mobiles is not yet prevalent in Sri Lanka, where web access is still largely through PCs. Of late, several mobile phone companies have been running advertisements for mobile phone based Facebook access, but again, the potential of this for organising flash mobs, or even just the dissemination of information, is poor. Services such as JNW pioneered the use of SMS as a platform for the dissemination of news, but few NGOs have picked up freely available technologies like FrontlineSMS to aid their advocacy and outreach. Mainstream media in Sri Lanka remains locked into a PC dominated mindset at best – there is not a single traditional media site that is mobile phone friendly. LBO and Groundviews remain the only websites that render content automatically for mobile phone screens.

Jude’s conclusion that social media can be important space for public discourse on democratisation and development especially among youth is reflected in Sri Lanka as well, through existing examples such as Pissu Poona on Facebook and new forms of dissent online that emerged during and just after the end of war.

Best practices and potential for improved information flows in media and civil society is a field and desk research based report published by the Centre for Policy Alternatives I edited in December 2008 that looks closely at how civil society and NGOs in Sri Lanka can use traditional, alternative and new media techniques in their advocacy. Jude’s conclusions resonate widely and deeply in the recommendations proposed.

Focus on the mobile user, and all else will follow…

Worldwide phone penetration continues to climb at a break-neck pace, with over 4 billion mobile subscribers at last count. (In comparison, the PC industry is forecasted to see its sharpest unit decline in history.) Prevailing economic conditions will accelerate this trend, as users consolidate pricey communication services into cost-effective, all-in-one mobile devices. And for the first time ever, half of all new connections to the internet will come from a phone in 2009.

Google’s mobile traffic reflects these milestones — having quintupled since 2007 — and it underscores users’ appetite for mobile data services. But as a community of operators, device manufacturers and software providers, we continue to get in their way. In short, and as a general rule, we make it too costly, too unfamiliar, and too difficult to do anything beyond voice calls.

In reply I offer up three suggestions: simpler data plans, better web browsers, and a smoother on-device experience. And in each case I’ll use Google traffic numbers as a proxy for total internet usage and user happiness.

Emphasis mine.

Writing in TechCrunch IT, Vic Gundotra, Vice President of Engineering for Google’s mobile and developer products backs with evidence my submissions to the Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) community since 2004 that mobile phones will match the capabilities traditionally associated with PCs, especially when it comes to Internet and web usage.

In The future of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) – Technologies to keep an eye on, I pointed to smartphones (iPhone in particular) as a device that will lead the transformation of the mobile web as it is known today into a single web, accessible seamlessly though mobiles and desktops.

iPod Touch 2.0 and the cult of Apple

The cult of Apple – customers camping outside the Manhattan Apple store to buy the iPhone 2.0. Photo taken by author on 9th July 2008.


I bought my iPod Touch around a month ago and was keen to play around with the new version of the phone software. The main challenge I faced was with iTunes registration – the US iTunes / Apps Store only accepts a credit card with a US billing address and there is absolutely no way to download the new apps without an iTunes account. Calling BT Options, from where I bought my Macbook Pro, didn’t help – they either didn’t know or didn’t want to tell how to access the iTunes store from Sri Lanka. Didn’t want to invest in a iTunes Gift Card because I wasn’t sure whether it would give me access to the Apps Store (I didn’t want to buy music).

After scouring the internet, came across a solution that I used to create a new account with my Sri Lankan VISA that worked perfectly. The downside is that the iTunes on my Touch doesn’t work anymore (says correctly that it isn’t supported in Sri Lanka) but everything else does – including the Touch based Apps Store as well as the version that runs on iTunes on my Mac.

Of course, to run the new Apps, you’ll need the software upgrade for the iPod Touch. It usually costs around $10, but I was able to download a torrent of the file and it worked perfectly.

Installing new apps is a cinch and I’ve already got the Apple Remote working with my iTunes library, which really is very nicely done. I’m in two minds about the new Facebook App. I loved the clean, fast and beautifully designed web based Facebook version for the iPhone / iPod Touch. The FB app incorporates the chat functionality but for me is less useful than the web based version customised for the device. There’s still no search for the Inbox on either version and on the App based FB, no easy way to get access to the photos of friends uploaded a while ago. The slideshow of the photos on the FB app look and feel better than the web version, so in sum, I think I’ll have to use both depending on what I want to do.

I registered with Apple’s new push email / push calendar service MobileMe and it too just works perfectly and as advertised. Change / add something on my Mac and it appears on my Touch and vice versa, almost immediately.

The new Evernote app is much better than the previous web-based version which was also tailored for the iPhone / iPod Touch. Evernote itself is an amazing product and has made my Rolodex / Business Card holders irrelevant. I now store everything on Evernote and it’s instantly searchable.

Evernote for iPhone

I also use the new NY Times app, which downloads all the articles to the device for offline reading / access. Takes a while on my SLT ADSL based wifi connection to get the content down the pipe, but once its done, I can go through the articles at leisure.

NY Times app

What’s struck me is how easy it is to read text on the Touch – the display is incredibly crisp, bright and clear. I’m comparing it to the first PDA I bought 4 years ago – a Palm Tungsten E and while that was certainly one of the best at the time, this one really is miles ahead of any other mobile display I’ve seen. Given the paucity of good movies on trans-atlantic flights coupled with the fact that I fly so often that I often know what’s on offer by heart on various airlines, I now just rip a few new / my favourite movies to my Touch and watch them on the flight – the picture quality and sound are both terrific and I love the fact that I now no longer have to pull out my Mac to check email or connect with friends via chat / Facebook.

On the downside, I’ve found that the horizontal orientation oftentimes does not work as advertised. It takes a while for the Touch to register that it’s been turned and even then, it doesn’t often re-orient the screen. A lot of the new Apps such as the FB / NY Times versions actually work better in landscape mode though. Another big problem is that the new MobileMe push-services really drains the battery. I have set up the device to check email every 15 minutes on 4 (Gmail / Google Apps based) accounts along with now a MobileMe account. Before, with just the Gmail / Google Apps accounts, the device had over 50% charge from a full charge when left overnight. Now, with the push email, I get a warning that the charge is less than 10% in the morning. I’ve read that this is more of a problem with the iPhone over 3G.

Overall though, I’m just amazed at this product. It really is magic to see it work esp. in New York, where touching the map gives you the location of where you are and if you want, turn by turn directions to where you want to go in the city.

A couple of years ago I said that devices such as this would revolutionise the practice of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) which many practitioners at the time staunchly opposed (see iPhone and ODR – Open Sourcing, Open Standards and Mobile phones, cheap laptops, Open Source and ODR – The killer trio). At the ODR Forum in Victoria, Canada this year I challenged the audience to come up with apps that run on mobiles (including devices other than the iPhone, though the iPhone singlehandedly seems to have awakened most Americans to the mobile web) given what clearly is already a very large market.

I’m also amazed at just how much devotion, fanatical even, that Apple attracts as a technology and web services company. Before the launch of the iPhone 2.0, the NY Times Technology section was awash with articles on it. Some of that is down to marketing. Most of it is just a reflection of just how much buzz a single product from Apple can create amongst a customer base that is by all accounts, growing apace.

By happy coincidence I found myself in Manhattan on the week of the launch and it was really quite something to see people camping outside their flagship 5th Ave store days before the launch, just to be one of the first to get their hands on a device that save for the 3G functionality, is really not that much of an upgrade from the original iPhone. For those who were the first to buy the iPhone and were also first in line to buy the new iPhone 3G, this would also mean that they would have spent in excess of over US$ 800 just for the devices, leaving aside AT&T calling plans and actual data transfer / voice charges. Clearly, this is a cash cow for Apple and for the mobile carrier.

Single-handedly, Apple has revolutionised mobile devices and the mobile web. The new Apps are to me a trend that I had spoken of a few years ago – seeing the smaller screens of mobile devices not as a weakness, but a strength.

Can’t wait for the WordPress App that will allow me to blog through the device!

UPDATE – 15 July 2008

Thankfully, it’s not just me who found Apple’s MobileMe dod not live up to the hype. Worse, it killed by iPod Touch battery life to the point where I’ve just taken the push MobileMe email / calendar / contacts off my Touch and gone back to syncing the old-fashioned way through iTunes. Battery life now back to what it was.  

The Facebook app keeps crashing and reset my Touch once. I’ve now gone back to using the web based iPhone Facebook version, which works very nicely. The only real advantage I can see with the app is better photo viewing and the chat functionality. Everything else works / looks better with the web based version. 

Installed the Netnewswire app which is a, at the moment, far better than Google Reader. Got the iPhone / Touch version of Meebo going. Simple, clean and just works.

Download the complete works of Shakespeare to boot.

Mobiles for Social Development

There’s a very interesting paper on the web I came across recently that deals with the pros and cons of using mobiles for social development and linked to the discussions on Lirneasia’s recent post on the future of telecentres and the role of mobiles in complementing and / or supplanting them. 

The paper seems to end on a note that is weighted towards the mobile web – the development of the web as we know it and use on PCs for mobile phones. The paper also says that SMS is not a viable option to provide services to millions of people in the developing world who may be illiterate. I don’t agree with either proposition and find a disconnect here – if illiteracy is a problem (it is and more specifically, the lack of vernacular services on mobile phones) then how will the development of the mobile web ensure that more citizens get access to and use services on the phone?

The paper also talks about IVR, but in my mind, it’s not a question of one or the other by complementarity between various tools, platforms and services – with SMS as the basic foundation and developing up from there – that will reach the greatest number of citizens and encourage them in turn to actually make use of what’s available. 

In Sri Lanka, some relatively low cost mobile phones already fully support Sinhala and Tamil interfaces and UNICODE text rendering. And yet, there’s absolutely no interest in creating m-gov services for mobile phones, even though there are more than around 11 million SIMS in a country with a population of 20 million.

The paper was also clearly written before the advent of the iPhone, which in the US at least has revolutionised the way people access the web using their mobile phone:

M:Metrics, which has been researching the mobile market since 2004, found that the iPhone is “the most popular device for accessing news and information on the mobile Web,” with 85 percent of iPhone users doing so in the month of January.

That contrasted with 58.2 percent of other smartphone owners, and 13.1 percent of the total mobile market.

“It’s creating buzz among consumers that it can be pleasant and useful accessing the Web from your mobile phone,” said Greg Sheppard, chief development officer of iSuppli Corp. market research firm.

The lesson here is that it may not be entirely necessary to develop a mobile specific version of the web, even though it’s now possible to do so very easily using services such as Mofuse and other plugins for blogging platforms like WordPress

With regards to the points made about the high costs of data access on mobiles, all signs indicate significant reductions in cost to the point where in the near future, mobile web browsing may even be free with some packages.

Other points regarding the use of mobiles for governance are those I’ve already tackled in a recent paper published in the i4D magazine’s June 2008 issue titled Governance and Mobile Phones.

Read the paper by S. Boyera. It may be a bit dated, but it is a tremendously useful anchor to tether the heady optimism of mobile phone advocates. 

Limitations of the Mobile Web in the developing world

The idea that the mobile web consists exclusively of mobile devices running web-browsers identical to the web experience we are used to with IE/Firefox is simply wrong. Throwing more and more resources towards creating devices for the developing world that can emulate the PC browsing experience is misguided. The 2 billion phones being used in the developing world are really great at making and receiving voice calls and text messages: Why not shape the internet experience to meet the specs of every phone’s inherent functionality (voice!) rather than requiring devices to have specs that quite frankly aren’t going to be realistic for many years to come?

A thought provoking article by Nathan Eagle on MobileActive explores the limitations and potential of mobile phones in the developing world.