Is browsing the mobile data killer app?

Today we have a great case study in how incomplete statistics can confuse people about the use of data services on mobile phones.

A Nokia manager recently gave a talk on the use of data services on mobiles. The presentation said that 63% of packet traffic generated by smartphones is Web browsing. Unfortunately, the presentation is no longer posted, but it was excerpted by Simon Judge's weblog, and subsequently reposted by Russell Beattie of Yahoo, who runs a very high-traffic mobile weblog that's a great info resource. Russell headlined his post, "Browsing: The Mobile Data Killer App."

When I looked at the source data, I couldn't find evidence to support that conclusion. I am not trying to pick on Russell here – the problem is not with his post, but with the incomplete data from Nokia. I'm hoping that when I can finally see the full presentation it'll have better documentation, but the pieces I've found so far are not encouraging.

If you've used a Nokia Series 60 smartphone, you'll know that they're not really all that smart. Most of them are not good e-mail clients because they don't have keyboards, and it's hard to find a lot of third party apps. Browsing is one of the most usable data features in the phones, so I'm not surprised that it's generating most of the data traffic. In the few slides I saw, Nokia didn't tell us the total amount of data traffic generated by the phones, so it's possible that browsing is generating 63% of a very small number.

That possibility is supported by another curious statistic on the slide – only 60% of the users have sent even one MMS (photo) message, and the people who do use MMS send an average of only 1-2 MMS messages per month. That means the average Series 60 phone is generating at best about one MMS message per month. When the carriers subsidized those camera phones to the tune of one or two hundred dollars each, it was with the expectation that they would produce a heck of a lot more MMS traffic than that. At that rate, the subsidy will never pay for itself, and the operators of the world have basically given free electronic cameras to several hundred million people and made no net profit from the exercise.

Simon's weblog also referenced a press release from Telephia, a mobile phone research company, that seems to have some similar statistical fuzziness. It says a survey shows much more aggressive mobile data usage by 3G users compared to non-3G users. For example, it says 56% of the 3G users browse, compared to 39% of non-3G users. 35% download video clips, compared to 11% of non-3G users. And so on. Unfortunately, what the press release doesn't say is what those 3G users did with their phones before they upgraded to 3G. Did 3G cause people to use more data, or did the heaviest users of data migrate to 3G? Without a before and after look at the billing history of the people who switched to 3G, we can't tell.

It's possible that Telephia did track the data usage of individuals, but the press release doesn't say so, and I doubt they did it because running a study like that is wickedly expensive. Without more specific information, we can't tell if 3G is actually increasing traffic and billing, or just giving a new (and heavily subsidized) toy to people who were already using a lot of mobile data.

Again, my point here is not that Simon and Russell are wrong, it's just that you have to ask a lot of probing questions about any industry statistics – especially those that claim to have discovered a killer app.


Anonymous said...

Hi Michael, I agree that the stats are wanting and the smartphone market is a tiny fraction of the total mobile device market. I heard recently that Nokia has 25 million s60 devices in market. When you compare that number to 40 million iPods in market or 700 to 800 million mobile phones sold per year, you get a sense of how tiny a 60% browsing number for Nokia smartphones is compared to the whole of the market. It's not even a manslaughter app much less a true killer.

There is one item in your article that I'd challenge and that's the assertion that a device must have a keyboard to be a competent email producer. I use a Nokia smartphone in T-9 mode frequently for composing blog posts, SMSes and emails. Further, I consider a keyboard to be a disadvantage as it turns my one-handed device into a two-handed device. So, for some users, I doubt that I'm truly unique, a keyboard isn't a requirement for text production.

Tom Frauenhofer said...

I do agree with one point of your entry, Michael - the design of the device will skew the results. A blackberry user will have mobile email at a much higher percentage than mobile browsing because the device is designed for it. The presence or lack of a keyboard isn't as important as the overall ease of use.

The other challenge is data plans - I use Verizon Wireless and do not have an unlimited data plan, so browsing is something I tend to stay away from on my Treo (and while I have the AIM client on my phone I rarely use it as well).

Michael Mace said...

>>I use a Nokia smartphone in T-9 mode frequently for composing blog posts, SMSes and emails.

Debi, I'm really glad that you pushed back on that. One of the points I always try to make about the mobile market is that you can't make blanket eneralizations about users, and yet I made a blanket generalization about mobile e-mail users. Shame on me.

Here's what I think I should have said: In the US, I believe most (not all) of the people who are heavy users of mobile e-mail will insist on a device with a full keyboard. RIM and the Treo have conditioned them to do that.

In many parts of Europe, I think the situation is fuzzier. Because of the success of SMS, many people are much more comfortable using T9 than folks are in the US. Also, in many European countries the phone is more of a personal identity statement than it is in the US. For example, in a restaurant your mobile is often put on the table, next to the silverware. Everyone looks at everyone else's phone, and the person with the coolest-looking phone feels good.

I've had more than one person from a European country tell me that a phone with a keyboard, even a Treo, just looks too geeky on that restaurant table.

So you're right, I should not generalize that all e-mail users must have a built-in keyboard.

Having said that, until recently I think most of the Series 60 phones weren't bundled with good RIM-quality enterprise e-mail clients. So perhaps that accounts for the relatively low usage of e-mail on them. As Tom said in his comment, it's the overall ease of use of the solution that counts.

Thank you both for the feedback.

Antoine said...

YOu raise a great question there Mike. But in lieu of looking at faulty statistics, there might be a positive flow to this information. Someone/company reads this, feels they are left behind, and goes out and develops something better than anything else out there. Granted, this might be less likely to happen today with less money going towards good ideas and more towards conservative ones, but if by chance enough companies took a chance on ease of delievery and hardware versaitilty, then the faulty stats could prove to be a self fulfilling prophecy of sort.

Of course, I say that thinking that AJAX apps might further usher in the age of browser based apps without heavy plugins for all devices. But that is just an observation on my part (

Anonymous said...

The Blackberry is a triumph of marketing over substance. Now there is a real alternative. And one that does online appointment setting through your smart phone, contact management, email and you can work on your MS office documents too. diarypoint is new generation of mobile computing. It really is the 'office in your pocket'

Michael Mace said...

Kerry, do you honestly believe that RIM is a triumph of marketing over substance, or are you just saying that as part of a pirch for your product?

I think people will be more likely to respect your product if you focus on pitching your advantages rather than starting off with insults aimed at one of the few truly successful mobile data companies. All you do is hurt your credibility.