Mobile-only users: beyond emerging markets

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Definition: The mobile-only user is the user who does all of their personal computing on their phone, rather than a PC.

It has been said over and over again that for many people in emerging markets, the connected mobile is their first and only point of connection to the internet and their first medium of personal computing. This is not difficult to come to terms with. Mobile phones are far cheaper than PCs and laptops, and mobile internet access remains the most affordable internet services in those markets. The growth of social media networks in those markets has been attributed to the mobile factor as well. There is no contesting the fact that emerging markets are powered by mobile in many ways.

What people might find a bit surprising is to read that mobile-only users are not just a trend observable in emerging markets alone, but that in a market like the United States, more and more people are becoming mobile-only users too. A Havard Business Review (HBR) article, titled The rise of the mobile-only user reveals that “rise of smartphones means that more and more people are going online from a mobile device” in the US. The article further goes on to say:

Some of these users may have access to a traditional PC and a broadband connection at home, work, or school, but these may be shared devices or simply not private. For their personal, always-on connected device, these people choose to rely on their mobile.

I remember that Phone Boy (who is based in the US, and who is NOT a boy anymore) once tweeted last year that though he had access to two working PCs, he carried out much of his web-based tasks on his mobile devices. That is the trend. More and more users are adopting mobile as their preferred means of getting online, whether they are in Africa, North America, Europe, or Asia.

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The HBR article drew information from a 2013 survey by PEW, which revealed that 17% of US-based mobile phone owners do most of their online browsing on their phone, rather than a computer or other device. PEW says that when asked for the main reason why users conduct most of their online browsing on a mobile phone, they pointed to three major factors:

Mobile phones are convenient, always available

64% of mobile-mostly internet users mention factors related to convenience or the always-available nature of mobile phones.

Mobile phones better fit people’s usage habits

18% of mobile-mostly internet users say that their online habits (or the habits of those around them) make their mobile phone a simpler, more effective choice for going online. Just under one in ten (7%) say that they do mostly basic activities when they go online and do not require a more advanced device, while 6% say that they simply find their mobile phone to be easier to use than a traditional computer.

Mobile phones fill access gaps

10% of mobile-mostly internet users point towards a lack of other access options as the main reason why they primarily use their phone to go online, with 6% saying that they do not have access to a computer and 4% saying that they do not have any other source of internet access beyond their mobile connection.

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It is interesting to note that one of the reasons that respondents gave was that they find their mobile phone to be easier to operate than a traditional PC. Very interesting. This factor of usage habit is pertinent. The mobile phone is what puts the “P” in PC. It is the most personal form of modern computing and people have built habits around it. It won’t be long that a lot of people will claim that the traditional PC is more difficult to use/operate than the mobile. It is at that point that the tide will turn fully.

Already it is happening: uploading pictures, tweeting, facebooking and other web-based activities are becoming more user friendly on mobile than on PC. The more that happens, the more people we shall see who will use their mobiles as their primary computing device. It will happen. It is just a matter of time. As I have said before, the average person does not need a PC for most of the online tasks that they have to carry out. Not only are many of today’s smartphones more powerful than the mainframes used by NASA to launch Apollo 11 into space in 1969, many of those smartphones already pack more power than many traditional PCs and laptops of today. Yes; highly specialised tasks will probably continue to require traditional PCs and laptops for a while, but the majority of users will default to mobile as their preferred medium – and in many cases, their only medium.

Mobile-only users are already widespread in emerging markets for reasons already stated. But even in developed markets, the combination of availability, computing power, usage habits and accessibility can only mean one thing: mobile-only users will continue to spread across the world till they outnumber those who compute via traditional PCs.

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Businesses need to pay attention

The mobile-only user isn’t going away. Rather they will become more mainstream. Businesses need to bear this in mind and ensure that the mobile-only user is considered in the design and layout of their websites, in their media campaign activities, and in customer support. If your customers are going mobile-only, this trend cannot be ignored, as they must be catered to where they are.

Contact us at Mobility!

Our team here at Mobility have years of experience with mobile and web. If your business needs help in making the transition to catering for mobile users, do contact us.

Mister Mobility

I started blogging about mobile in 2004 as a fun way to share my passion for gadgets and mobile services. My other interests include digital media, speaking and teaching, photography, travelling, and dancing.

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