Just Ask a Teenager

I was on a panel at a telecom tradeshow a few years ago. I was surrounded by top executives from the largest handset companies, a few global carriers, and a couple technologists. The host asked a basic question: “What’s the killer app for the mobile marketplace going to be?”


My peers on the panel had a range of fanciful responses, from the future of mobile payments, to downloadable music, to interactive video services, to presence and location. Just to be a contrarian (and because it represented my reality), I said… “I think it’ll be making a phone call.”


After a lot of gnashing by the panelists, the audience ended up saying, “yup, that sounds right. A mobile phone that can’t place a call isn’t worth owning.” After all, a need to make voice calls is why most (not all) people buy a phone. And I’d argue the most successful wireless carriers are the ones that have focused on voice service and coverage. At least where I live.


But I was in a European airport a few weeks ago, waiting in a lounge with about 100 other people – when I had to revise my world view. Most people had mobile handsets – we all would’ve predicted that. But no one was talking on their phone. They were all looking at them, and either browsing or text’ing or playing a game – but no one was making a voice call.


Now draw a chart of your own personal usage over the past few years, and I would imagine the line representing “number of minutes per day I use my phone like a computer” is approaching or surpassing the line representing the “number of minutes per day I’m on a phone call.” Whether it’s playing a game, grooming your address book, checking a stock price or sending/reading email, the lines are crossing over globally. Not for everyone, but certainly most users (and definitely most younger users, or those living in Hong Kong, where mobile handset penetration exceeds 100%).


With that as a backdrop, I was asked a simple question by an investor last week, “what’s the one thing you think the market doesn’t understand about Sun’s opportunity?”


My response: that the majority of the world will use the internet through their phones, not through a PC.


I’m not sure he believed me. And within the US, I’m not sure many folks agree that most people in the world will use the internet on their phone. Yet. But considering the volumes – nearly 5x the number of people buy a phone each year, than buy a PC, the conclusion seems obvious. And I don’t know about you, but when I sample my nieces and nephews, even those in the USA, with “which would you rather have, a new iPod, a Motorola RAZR, Danger’s HipTop, Microsoft’s XBox or Windows Vista?”, I get a pretty consistent answer. (Hint: it ain’t Vista.)


Which only strengthens my belief that most people in the world will first experience the internet on their handset. Which means most businesses in the world trying to reach those consumers or leverage the internet should broaden their horizons.


We certainly are.

39 Comments

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39 responses to “Just Ask a Teenager

  1. Today, I still have my SideKick II (SideKick III is out, I think), and use Danger’s HipTop technologies, including its blogging technologies. Look at the picture of Rich Green and John Kannegaard blogged right from the scene of Java’s 10th anniversary in our Santa Clara campus before Rich returned to Sun. I once used it to blog from a stadium in Barcelona during the Barcelona-Madrid game. Of course, the mobile connnectivity in Barcelona was amazing.

  2. I totally agree that the next wave of Internet usage is going to come from mobile phones – we already see Blackberrys and Treos increasing their market penetration. People are doing more and more email and basic Net surfing through these devices. It won’t take long before most of the web surfing will be done through these phones.
    Cheers,
    Thyaga

  3. Jonathan, as u lyk th “echo boomers” y nt do l10n for that gen – ie. txtspk !
    ur blogs l33t, l8r m8

  4. Insane Comp

    Got yourself a nice bonus last year.
    Just one question: with that much money in your bank account, what’s your motivation to work at SUN any more? I’d go sun bathing on the beach. Maybe that is your backup plan, in case the “dot in Web 2.0” plan does not work out.
    Just imagine the reaction of those ex-Sun emploees who just got laid off a few months ago, when they read the headline.
    Congratulations on the pay.

  5. I’m actually using my phone as a browsing device more every day. Waiting in line at Starbucks – I’m browsing. Waiting in line for the restroom at Starbucks – I’m browsing (with legs crossed). While in the restroom at Starbucks – I’m …
    How do I know I’ve already crossed the line? I’m charging my phone twice as often relative to a year ago, and my voice plan hasn’t changed.

  6. Heck, I use gmail on my cell phone. What next? A SunRay on-a-phone? Just plug in a display, keyboard, mouse and mic/speakers! That would rock.

  7. Prince

    Hi Jonathan,
    This cell phone thingy is becoming more powerful.
    My wish list on the cell phone:
    1. 6 Mega pixel camera ( with 4 GB storage )
    2. video recording mode to capture 2 hours of
    action ( Isn’t Samsung going to have 32 G
    SD or something.. ) with decent quality.
    3. TV & Satellite radio
    4. GPS
    .
    .
    .

  8. David

    I expect in 5-10 years the handset will be the Network Computer so many wanted 10 years ago. Better batteries, better voice control and wireless USB (or similar, combined with Jini-like smarts) for user I/O (monitor, optional keyboard, etc.) will make the handset into everyone’s personal information hub.

  9. DT

    Your observations and their interpretation make sense. Living in Paris France, it also stikes me that most people travelling every morning in the subway look at their phone, obviously working on the data it supplies.
    This is one major trend ; internet and e-mails have developped over the ten past years at the expense of direct verbal exchanges. The same is underway reagarding mobile phones. As if writing were to replace speaking whenever possible.
    As a consultant, I have had several clients in the mobile communication business. Corporate unconscious differ, but I have a growing conviction. Handset manufacturers do not develop communication tools but protection devices. Internet protects from direct confrontation, it is obvious within the firms. Mobile phones have the same function in that they make it possible to communicate without any physical presence. The next step is substituion of text to spoken words.
    The paradoxical and unique trend in the development of communication tools is a profound desire to avoid direct contact with others. This is a simple fact, but still seldom taken into consideration, due to the overwhelming enthusiasm generated by the exploding “communication” possibilities.

  10. Christopher Mahan

    Just give me a 80×25 ssh client and a good browser and as a developer, I’m all set. Oh, and a keyboard, hopefully wireless too.

  11. The holy grail will be the handheld device with a roll up screen (hint epaper) which will unfold when there is something to display and will have a wi-fi, an ethernet port, an analog modem, universal connectivity through Sun-Google’s worldwide free wi-fi access, a 4GB flash card , access to Sun’s worldwide internet Storage and Computational grid, inbuilt credit card reader and payment mechanism , bar code reader and of course ability to make voice call (again VOIP over the wi-fi access) and buttons for invoking teleportation and hovering hovercrafts.
    We have waited long enough Sun!! Are you going to give it to us or not before the sun sets?

  12. The holy grail will be the handheld device with a roll up screen (hint epaper) which will unfold when there is something to display and will have a wi-fi, an ethernet port, an analog modem, universal connectivity through Sun-Google’s worldwide free wi-fi access, a 4GB flash card , access to Sun’s worldwide internet Storage and Computational grid, inbuilt credit card reader and payment mechanism , bar code reader and of course ability to make voice call (again VOIP over the wi-fi access) and buttons for invoking teleportation and hovering hovercrafts.

    We have waited long enough Sun!! Are you going to give it to us or not before the sun sets?

  13. It seems to me that the coolest mobile feature would be the ability to browse the web at high speed without a powerful wifi network. Relying on service providers for your internet access is so Web 1.0. And if you can browse the web at high speed, you can make a phone call. If Mr. Schwartz is right, then that feature is the logical next step for smart mobile technology makers.

  14. Francis

    Sorry to be completely off-topic but… Do you have any thoughts about the rumours that Google will deploy Solaris into their data centers?

  15. It took you this long to post on this?🙂 Using your cell phone as a pc is like opening the door. Its not very interesting really. Its WHAT the teenagers want to do with cell phones. Like instant posts to MySpace, flickr or digg. Like walking in their dorm room and having music playing on handset switch to music playing on laptop automatically. Its your cell phone reminding you that you have 10 minutes to get to class and class is 8 minutes across campus ’cause it knows where you are at. Its the intense level of integration into a lifestyle that makes these things relevant. And relevancy is what defines the so-called “killer app”.

  16. Hey Jonathan,
    Good posting and interesting topic. Exactly how will the world experience the internet and how will it shape our communication. Or perhaps better stated, how will our need for communication shape the internet. Already there have been a wide range of new communication technologies based on the internet. E-mail way back when.. IMing, videoconferencing, VOIP, Wikis and blogs, etc.
    It wasn’t too long ago that we were tied down to our computers to experience most of these things.. but today we can access them from our cell. How will this shape the future? In some good ways and of course some bad ways. More in touch, but at the same time less able to “get away from it all” when we need to. Realistically though, a time will undoubtedly come when our voice is the least used function of our telephone. I’m not sure if it is quite here yet, because I think that the useage of handhelds/cells in airports is going to be biased due to the boredom most of us face there.
    I believe we still have such a long way to go until people will begin experiencing the internet for the first time through a handheld/cell. The reason being is that most children will more than likely have access to a home or school computer before being given a cell phone by their parents. Until we can access the internet as seamlessly from our handhelds as our PCs, a barrier will remain there for those gaining their first access.
    As to developing countries… in my mind it is really a toss up between technologies that are implemented. Cell phones require quite a bit of infrastructure (and investment) to access the internet. However, PCs accessing the internet are going to require a line of some sort, and that might not be prevelant out in the less built up areas. Their first access to the internet will probably be as primitive as mine was. Using an old beat up PC that was donated to my school. That isn’t exactly what your comments were about though.
    So, you were asked a question and responded.
    “My response: that the majority of the world will use the internet through their phones, not through a PC.”
    My question to you then is: What is Sun going to do about it?

  17. ufi

    In some years from now the killer app will be the service on the other end of the phone.
    You will get used to call your personal assistant several times a day, asking questions, getting answers and reminders, or just talking. Service depends on the amount of money you can spend. Most will get AI computer voice, some can afford real people who have ultrafast access to the Web from their service desks. And they will know where you are (all phones will have GPS), some phones may transmit even your medical data if you want so. If you allowed, they know who your friends are and may suggest to call them and ask them if they would want to meet you if you are near each other, and so on. They would tell you that there is a new arts exhibition of your favourite artist next to you, so if you don’t mind they will give you directions to get there. They will know you came by bus and remind you to hurry if you are to miss the last bus back.
    Imagine more.

  18. I agree! I can see how Asia would be a very strong market place for Mobile phone internet.
    Thailand for example has 5 times the amount of mobile, then what it has land lines. At the moment, the trend is Internet cafes, but you can see that being evolved to the Mobile phone.

  19. Yes Right ! Mobile shifts from so called Business class to General class(I am talking about Asian Market) and from working man to children. I personally preferred a mobile which provided me a lot of gaming facility and cools apps based on image processing or navigation like finding shopping malls.

  20. Nick

    Outside the US we are constantly bemused by how North America seems reluctant to move away from voice and email. Ever since GSM took hold and operators removed high cross-operator fees SMS messages have been the main handset use – like many (I’m sure most from numbers I’ve seen) people in Europe I send/receive at least 10 times as many messages than voice calls. As always with global tech its worth looking a bit further than the East and West coasts.

  21. Ben

    Mobile Phones, love them or hate them, no matter what they are here to stay. For me my main thing is that I want to be able to call 911 in an emergency and make sure that the call gets through first time, every time. After that I want decent decent phone (voice) functions, may years ago there was an American firm called Wildfire which was an ‘interactive assistant’ who answered your phone, took messages, and generally was good. This then died out after a European phone company bought them out. To me a whole voice service a bit like 1800-555-tell, mixed with Wildfire and add in Text To Speech for webpages all delivered by voice down your phone to me would be good.
    How often have you been able to send an SMS or Read a webpage whilst driving?!

  22. annonymous

    Does “most people” equal the third world? Using a PC at an Internet Cafe is by far the cheapest way to “experience” the internet in those regions. Most 3rd world countries don’t have a proper sewage system, why are you talking about people in those places using US$300 phones with monthly bills. How do you bill people who live hand to mouth? I am pretty sure you will make a lot more money with a very cheap and reliable water purification system, which is what most of the people in these areas require. Rather than prattling on about how you are going to make money out of people with none, why don’t you compete with Ericcson, Nokia and Motorola in the mobile phone infrastructure market, you obviously believe its a “hot” market to be in.

  23. Mark

    Why a phone? Most people associate “phone” with a phone call as you did. The point here is that we will want some kind of device that is small enough to put in our pockets, but powerful and versatile enough to talk by voice, text or video (or all 3 together), play games, watch movies and a whole host of other communication and entertainment activites that haven’t been thought of yet.
    Should the transmission be based around a phone network or the wireless networks developing in many areas? Will the existing phone companies change to provide these new mediums or will they stick to the model they know and try to fit everything into that (take the ENUM standard for example).
    The move is likely to be toward these light access devices and maybe the OS will be Java based – maybe even Windows based. The big move to the light devices will be when we solve the Identification / Authentication and the trust issues so that people have enough confidence in the security and privacy of storage providers. -Enter Sun Access Manager, Liberty and info cards. Still lots to solve but it’s a start.

  24. Jen

    I didnt realize the number of people using a phone to browse the internet was so staggering. Guess I’ll have to start keeping that in mind when I develop my upcoming websites.

  25. Jon livesey

    I think that one reason the US is a bit conservative about voice versus text is that there is a skill threshold to get over in order to text fluently. As long as most people don’t text, there is little incentive for people to acquire the skill. Nokia has gone part of the way with some predictive software which makes texting a little easier, but it’s still not perfect. I wonder if Sun software could help to take texting a bit farther.

  26. Funny enough, my mobile carrier here in the states is SO focused on their devices for voice that when I bought a second device, a Motorola Q, purely for the purpose of email and IM they had no service in place for me. It took quite a bit of effort to convince them that I was not replacing my voice phone but getting a dedicated email device. They had never conceived of a phone without voice. And now, my dedicated email device constantly rings with wrong number calls that leave messages in my voicemail. Voicemail? Phone calls? On my email device? Clearly the focus on voice services has gone so far that they have lost all ability to think of any device as general purpose.

  27. Prince

    Jonathan, the middle class section in 3rd world is growing fast and many of
    them have fancy cell phones ( with more features ). Not in the distant past i
    had a trip to south India and tried to show off my Nokia cell phone purchased in
    US . The locals pulled much better ones from their pocket. The fish monger uses one.
    The places where no landlines are there, they benefitted from the cell phone
    service. There is explosive growth there. But, many of them are experiencing more
    dropped calls, interruption to service etc. There is scope for companies like SUN etc
    being part of providing more robust infrastructure. The reality is that ‘improper sewage
    systems’ co-exist with communication needs of a growing middle-class population.

  28. People use cell phones because they have a really simple interface and do what you want them to do. Most people can use a phone. Many people can use a Mac. Quite a few people can use a PC. But Solaris is still a pain in the ass unless you’ve got some training (e.g. how come user dirs don’t live in “/home”?) – so Jonathan. How about taking a lesson from the mobile phone companies and making Solaris SIMPLER and more USER-FRIENDLY? How about a simple wizard-style user interface?

  29. The reality is if you are in business, taking your laptop everywhere becomes frustrating. Being able to get access to what you want online from your mobile is a perfect solution.
    Australia (where I live) seems to be quite slow in introducing this technology. The other area which needs development is our broadbacd services. Business visitors cant believe how slow our internet is!

  30. Sanjay Balram

    I enjoyed reading your post and cannot agree with you more. Ever since I got a PDA/mobile that supports ‘push-mail’ I see myself going for days without using my PC. I use my mobile for e-mails, web access and also to do on-line transactions. I recently was abroad on a business trip and din’t take my laptop along. My mobile served me adequately well!

  31. Thanks for posting this Jonathan. But I think there is one point you may want to reconsider. If you want to see the future of connected activity, don’t look at what teens are doing, look at how pre-teens are adopting technology. As I have asserted over the years, and just gave this same argument at the Austin Game Conference during a panel session, if you want to see the future, look at your kids. The fact is that kids today between 4 and 12 are plugged in and becoming amazingly tech savvy. Why is this the case? Why is that more and more younger kids seem to be adopting technology at, what some might consider, an alarming rate? Simple.
    Because kids that grew up with the first real computers in the home are now raising kids of their own.
    These parents are not afraid of technology because it was a part of their childhood. When their kids ask for a new game, to try an online portal, to play with a Nintendo DS or to get a mobile phone, there is less and less objection in the home because their parents recognize the benefits of those activities. They grew up doing the same, with the exception of a completely connected experience and their parent’s lack of understanding of why using that confounding com-pew-ter was go gosh darn interesting.
    Regarding Internet usage on handsets, it’s not just about the phone. Look at the Nintendo DS. Nintendo has set up over 6000 partner hotspots across the US, allowing DS owners to reach out and play with others across the web. In less than 1 year, 2 million individual players in the US accessed the Nintendo WiFi network. Many of these people are experiencing the Internet for the first time through their DS.
    All of this reinforces the fact that, in consumer markets, entertainment is the single greatest motivator for technology adoption, bar none. When was the last time that average consumer researched the best e-mail client for the home? I bet that same consumer knows when their favorite show comes on (Heroes on NBC, BTW) and knows how to set their TiVo to record it. And they didn’t purchase the TiVo because it runs Linux, they bought it because it pauses and records television. That same person isn’t purchasing a 65″ TV because the local news looks better on it. And so on, and so on.
    Let’s face it, people purchase $300 mobile phones because pictures look great on them, the ringtones are great, games look good and there is a decent camera there. Web too. If all people cared about was making phone calls from their phone, we could bust out phones from 10 years ago and be done with it🙂
    Lastly, with regard to the “A mobile phone that can’t place a call isn’t worth owning.” comment, look at Sony’s new mylo personal communicator. It is everything people look for in today’s mobile phone, without the pure “phone”. 802.11b, IM, MP3, VoIP, QWERTY keyboard, etc.

  32. Raj Bala

    Where do I find a web host that allows me to uses x64 with Solaris?

  33. Wayne

    Yo dude – quit blowing off about mobile phones and start kicking some a$$ down in engineering. I’ve just ordered 110 DL-585s to run RMDS on Linux – what a shame as I’d been running SunOS since ’89 but you gotta go with the flow you know!!!
    PS – if you really wanna learn about mobile phones quit Sun and come to Japan – it really rocks here!

  34. Hi, Jonathan. I echo your belief about texting. I’m currently on a speaking tour of the Philippines, discussing social media at universities and the national public relations congress. Most Filipinos have one or more cell phones and are constantly texting, less frequently talking to each other. Also, it’s a generational thing. My 17 year old and her friends almost never actually SPEAK on the phone, but they text constantly.

  35. Unnsse Khan

    Is Sun going to provide J2ME (MIDP 2.0) support for Apple’s OS X?

  36. david

    Very interesting, but i would like to use my cell phone to navigate, and actually in my office that action is not possible.
    I think firstly we should begin this project with ourselves, in our offices.

  37. [Trackback] Ryan Stewart this week was Looking at the Strategy of Rich Internet Applications.  He hits a lot of points there, but also takes a stab at the fundamental differences between Web Applications and Desktop Applications.  Clearly, if you read other par…

  38. Jay

    I think that two big reasons that texting is still not widely being using in the US is:

    The aging population. I’m only in my mid-40’s and I can’t see the text on my mobile phone without my reading glasses. There is no way that I’m going to start texting my friends (who also need reading glasses…)
    Cost. Text messaging is not free from all providers for all plans.

    Also, mobile phones won’t replace land lines in the US until the service providers provide better coverage. Teenagers are texting each other because the reception is so inconsistent. Why try to yell thru static when you can text in private? It’s extremely annoying when someone calls me from their cell phone and I can’t understand a thing.

  39. Jay

    I think that two big reasons that texting is still not widely being using in the US is:

    The aging population. I’m only in my mid-40’s and I can’t see the text on my mobile phone without my reading glasses. There is no way that I’m going to start texting my friends (who also need reading glasses…)
    Cost. Text messaging is not free from all providers for all plans.

    Also, mobile phones won’t replace land lines in the US until the service providers provide better coverage. Teenagers are texting each other because the reception is so inconsistent. Why try to yell thru static when you can text in private? It’s extremely annoying when someone calls me from their cell phone and I can’t understand a thing.

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