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.