My Thesis on the Mobile Internet

Ben Bajarin / December 22nd, 2014

I believe a profound computing shift is taking place — one that is hard to see in Western countries. Largely because these countries have what I call a “PC bias”. Most internet users in the West, especially those over a certain age, grew up with a PC. The first experience they had with the internet was the desktop web through a browser. This is why, in all the usage survey data I have on the developed market, we still see extremely high use rates of the desktop web, in particular around activities like commerce.

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 9.30.54 AM
* Question: What device have you used to make a purchase in the last 30 days? Source: GlobalWebIndex US panel.

I have many more charts than this showing the PC bias of the west for many tasks where in mobile first countries their primary computer is a smartphone. The PC, with its large screen, offers many advantages. But I believe the world is moving away from PC literate consumers and the balance of power in usage and literacy is shifting to smartphones.

Breaking Through the PC Bias

At a fundamental level, the internet remains at the center of the interaction model for our smart devices. What we are seeing is a divergence in internet interaction models in countries and users with a PC bias vs. those with a mobile bias. The internet is simply used differently. The interaction with the internet on a PC is very different than the interaction on mobile. The desktop browser has benefits and limitations. Similarly, the primary interaction with the web on mobile — apps — also has benefits and limitations. But neither is the lesser of ways to interact with the internet. Each is the best in the context of the device. The major difference between the two is the internet on PCs is largely physically fixed whereas the mobile internet is not. It is at this point I believe all the advantages of the future interaction models with the internet skew toward mobile.

I was reading a book with many insights into China called “The End of Copycat China“. I came across this quote as the author, Shaun Rein, was interviewing David Wei, the former CEO of Alibaba. When explaining his investment strategy for internet companies, Wei explained how he segmented Chinese consumers. He shared how he focuses on companies whose products and solutions are targeting those born after 1985. Here is his reasoning:

“In my experience, people who were born before 1980 are not the real internet population of China…The real internet population is people born after 1985. January 2000 was the beginning of China’s internet.”

He goes on to explain:

“People born after 1985 grew up with the internet. They live with it. They use it for shopping, entertainment…. as for people who were born before 1985, it is hard to convince them to move away from ingrained habits..”

It is that last point that stands out to me and the one I think is an essential observation of the PC bias of the West. Wei was talking specifically about commerce, explaining how those born before 1985 still shop in traditional ways at brick and mortar stores. Young people who grew up, not just with the internet but the mobile internet, after that date now shop largely online and largely through mobile devices. The future of the mobile internet is taking place in China and it has everything to do with 100’s of millions of young consumers growing up with the mobile internet rather than the desktop internet.

This shift has yet to happen in Western and developed markets where a PC bias still exists — but it will. Most in the West still have ingrained habits that lead them to prefer the PC for many tasks. China’s internet began on the PC but went mobile extremely quickly. Sites like Alibaba, Tencent, Weibo, and many others prioritized mobile efforts over desktop ones largely because of the rapid rise and domination of the mobile internet over the desktop internet. Now, as we look at China, nearly all hardware, software, and services innovation is focused on mobile first and often mobile only. We are raising a similar “born mobile” generation in the West. However, this demographic of younger people has not yet reached a position of power or influence enough to cause the shift to happen yet as it has in China.

China succeeded initially by copying many concepts from the West. As China was getting started on the internet, the US was the teacher and Chinese technology companies were the students. I fully expect more and more western companies will begin to learn from China’s mobile internet users, thus creating a role reversal where Chinese mobile internet companies are the teachers and their Western counterparts are the students.1

A good Western example of something similar is Facebook. Facebook started and grew on the desktop web. But today, nearly all their focus and innovation is around mobile. This has to do, in part, with their global presence but also as they recognized a shift, even with Western consumers, from desktop Facebook to mobile Facebook. Facebook is increasingly adding things, like Messenger and stickers, that are heavily influenced by things that are working in Asia. I expect this to continue and for the West to begin to bring similar business models.

Follow the Software and the Money

The biggest stand out point to me, which makes clear this shift from the PC to mobile, is to follow the software. Nearly all interesting and innovative things we see in every major market from a software, as well as services, standpoint is on mobile. This is the telltale sign of where we are going. In the PCs heyday, we saw tremendous innovation in software. Now, nearly all PC innovation has moved to the cloud and very little local software innovation exists. This is true even in the enterprise. There is not a new enterprise-focused software or services startup today centering on or even emphasizing the desktop over smartphones and tablets. Any credible enterprise software platform or service must include mobile devices as well.

The same is true from a monetary standpoint. Nearly all the money to be made in software development is in mobile. While there are some opportunities on the PC, what software work we see is designed to monetize cloud services, not necessarily the software itself. Right now in mobile there is money to be made in software. Eventually services will become a bigger deal in mobile as well. But for now, the money is in mobile and most of the focus of software innovation is there too.

The Static Desktop Web

This does not mean the internet of the desktop is dead. My belief is it is at a static endpoint. We will see little to no innovation or advancement around it. As the shift to mobile continues, we will see internet time on the PC drop in Western markets. Consumers will still use the PC for work or other tasks that require a big screen. But at a fundamental level even those tasks will be challenged as the software evolves to meet the medium of mobile. It is shortsighted to make the assumption that certain things can ONLY BE DONE on a PC with a big screen and a keyboard. Those same things can and will be done on mobile but they will be done differently as the task evolves to meet the medium. Many argue you can’t run your business on your smartphone but plenty run businesses off WeChat in China or off Instagram in India. When all you have is a mobile device, software developers will evolve the tools to meet the medium. It is ignorant to think those types of innovations will never make it to the West.2

The trend of 2-in-1 and portable desktop all-in-one PCs all but acknowledges this point. Those devices are evolving and hope to take part in the momentum of the mobile internet by making the notebook and desktop less of a fixed use device. These devices that have evolved the PC into areas it has not gone before may help evolve their role in consumer’s homes but it is my conviction that most all innovation will be heading toward small, pocketable personal computers.

I know many with a PC bias will disagree with me, but this is is my overall thesis. And all one has to do is observe those who grew up with smart pieces of glass connected to the internet that fit in their pockets to see it.

——————————————————————————————————–

For a deeper read into where I think we are headed, you can download my report on the Next Phase of Mobile. Here is the outline of the report:

– Low-Cost Hardware
– Google’s Android Conundrum
– Localization vs. Globalization
– Business Model Innovation
– The Brains Behind the Next Wave
– Embedded Security
– Consumer Packaged Technology
– Summary: The World is Going Mobile

Download the Next Phase of Mobile

Screen Shot 2014-12-20 at 9.35.25 PM

  1. I’m not saying what works in the West is an exact copy of what works in China, but that the West will increasingly use concepts and business models that are working in mobile first countries for when the balance of power shifts to the “born mobile” generation. []
  2. Emphasizing, that I’m not saying the PC is dead but simply that the computer in the shape of a notebook or desktop is finding its niche as a business tool, or a specialty device in the home. []

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio
  • klahanas

    Your thesis may indeed be correct. As an analyst, I imagine that part of your job is to follow the money. But the very concept of the internet are it’s physical connections, not it’s modality.

    Until now, even now, the mobile internet is an afterthought. The “real” one was always perceived to be the desktop sites. That’s an entirely wrong outlook. All the internet is (profoundly) are the physical connections and protocols for computers to talk to each other. It so happens that desktops, being the broader devices, and being un-curated, are the most able to use all aspects and potential of the internet. All modes of the internet, if you will. Mobility’s benefit, is just that mobility.

    The internet is the internet, how it’s used depends on the capabilities of the device and the limitations of the device’s ecosystem.

    • benbajarin

      This was not a discussion about the Internet. It is about what becomes the central human interaction with it in the future. Of course the desktop still exists but there becomes less innovation around it. Of course IoT devices will connect but for different reasons.

      My point is the mobile device becomes the central computer for most human interaction with the Internet the majority of the time. Therefore it becomes a much higher priority for everyone in the ecosystem looking to do innovation around software, services, business, etc.

      • klahanas

        There will be less innovation around the desktop, because it’s harder to innovate the desktop than mobile. In many ways, mobile is struggling to catch up to the desktop, hence the “innovations”. There are all kinds of innovations, but my personal favorites are those that allow me to do new things, not just the same things but tacking on…”while mobile”.
        I will give mobile credit where size is it’s advantage. Right now it’s GPS, photography, nfc applications, image lookup, etc. Stuff like that.

        • Shameer Mulji

          I disagree. HP’s Sprout PC has some great ideas on what kind of innovations that can be brought to the desktop.

          https://sprout.hp.com/

          • klahanas

            I agree and I hope the trend continues. I did read that its not quite ready for prime time though. But those are just the new capabilities I was referring. Its new, not catch up.

          • Shameer Mulji

            You’re right, it isn’t ready for prime time yet but it’s fascinating to see how far they can push the desktop.

  • marco1959

    While I can’t disagree with your central thesis, the first graphic and immediately following text present one internet task: shopping, for which the PC is still better suited in many opinions. Your article may have been more balanced and informative had you included data for other types of use, such as reading the news, watching movies, reading books, all of which are probably done more on phones and tablets than PCs. Still, we can’t argue that the world is moving to mobile, and shopping may eventually catch up when fewer and fewer people have PCs at all. Thanks for the latest in your series of well-researched and well-written articles.

    • benbajarin

      Thanks. Yes I have many more data sets, but the article was already long and I didn’t want it to go longer or more dense for fear that less would read it. Shopping is a good example because it highlights a particular economic model as well as a behavior shift that has financial impact to many players. It is also an area where with mobile we are seeing the business model shifts as well.

  • Kent Hoskin

    I like the term PC-bias // it could be pc-myopia also . In your paper you discuss amazon – could it be that AWS is a more important mobile play than kindle ?

  • krabbie

    Im waitiing… for the time when my pocket PC will enlighten my desktop BT screen/monitor/tv and my BT touchpad to the two or three hours of ??? Real Work??? I do each week and let me be totally mobile the rest of the time. Seems like “Time Needed” for a PC is dwindling. I want my iPhone 6S+ to do this. If the stop watch of doing Real Work was true I would bet dollars to doughnuts that there would be the pivot to mobile from the demands of Desktop.

  • jfutral

    I would put the internet generation even later than 1985, maybe more like 1995. But I do agree with the concept. I do think the innovation shift to mobile is two fold. Not just that things are different on mobile. There is more that needs to be figured out on mobile. The PC has had decades to work out how it fits in and is utilized. And that is it’s inhibiting factor, it is largely limited by its own definition. Mobile is still being defined. I really think the next big innovators are from non-western developers who did not start with a PC bias and the western twenty-somethings who aren’t as hampered by PC habits as the older generations.

    Joe

  • Zaheer

    I agree with your thesis, it’s now obvious that the whole world is moving towards touchscreen devices (phones and tablets). As someone who grew up during the PC payday (pre-85 kid) it took me some time to see the light. I’m still very much attached to my mac, but I see how all the really innovative software is coming out on phones and mac. That’s a good thing, the WIMP paradigm, as good as it is, is tapped out. The best aspect of these post-PC devices is the ease of use and the fact that they can have all these sensors that can be used in a million different ways to be aware of your location, device orientation, etc and how that can effect the software you use on them. PC/Mac’s are stationary devices and aren’t nearly as intuitive to use to people that haven’t grown up with them. The thing that really showed me that these post-PC devices are the way forward is with my dad using one, he always hated computers but absolutely adored the iPad. It just makes sense to him, it’s easy to use, has tons of cool apps, and is very intuitive.

    I agree with Steve Jobs’ analogy that PC/Mac’s will be trucks and phones/tablets will be like cars. Trucks will always be around but it won’t be the mainstream computing platform for the majority of the planet.

    That said, If I had to be honest I’ve always looked at tablets as “lesser” devices compared to PC/Mac. They didn’t have the flexibility or power of traditional computers to do certain tasks. That’s changing rapidly with the advancements in SOC’s, the type of software the iPad Air 2 can run is astounding. The type of software that is as good or even better in many ways (easier to use) than their equivalent PC/Mac software.

    I wonder if one day in the future I’ll stop using a laptop and just go with a tablet and smartphone combo. It’s getting the point where tablets are just as capable as my macbook.

  • Imagebloke b

    I think you’re absolutely spot in here. Many say you can’t have work done with the iPad. I strongly disagree. An iPad with a keyboard can help you have some work done great deal. It has helped me quite a lot. It’s been ages since I last wrote big texts in my laptop. Right now I am thinking about buying an iPad Air 2 and hand my current iPad Air to my girlfriend or maybe I should buy a notebook? My questions is how often will I use a notebook nowadays? Is it worth investing in a Mcbook Pro with retina display? In the end it is clear we are moving forward to mobiles and the iPad may be an excellent choice not only for me but for millions out there.

    • pk_de_cville

      I’d wait to judge the qualities of the rumored thinner, lighter, faster MacBook Air or maybe it’s going to be the iPad Pro or, perhaps, both will arrive on the same day with the MacBook’s MacOSX and the iPad Pro’s iOS running on the same A9 chip!

      Something big is coming our way. Continuity is just the tip of the iceberg.

  • observer

    Shopping online has 4 advantages:
    You can get user feedback before you buy.
    You don’t have to drive anywhere (in any area with bad traffic, that matters).
    An online store has a much greater selection than a physical store can contain within its walls.
    There’s no need to hope that your physical store will have the item in stock.

    Why haven’t those born before 1985 (who still shop at brick and mortar stores) discovered this? It seems obvious.

    • Shameer Mulji

      Shopping online is great for non-luxury items / brands. It isn’t prudent to shopping for a car without test driving it, sitting it, seeing it in person, etc.. Same idea goes for a luxury suit or high-end watch or even buying Apple products. I wouldn’t recommend buying any of these without touching them and trying them out.

      • observer

        I don’t think Ben was referring to the luxury items you mention. He made it pretty clear that he was talking about a generational divide in shopping, and I was saying that I don’t see why those born before 1985 aren’t perceiving the advantages of buying online.

    • obarthelemy

      Shopping offline has some great advantages:
      – you can see and handle the actual product you’re buying
      – you can actually leave the shop with the product, instead of playing tag with a delivery man a few days later (or more)
      – and go back to that shop for help and service
      – you can come across actual shoppers looking for the same things as you, sometimes real experts, and never paid-up shills as in online comments.

      Maybe one day those born after 1985 will realize that ? It seems obvious.

      • I agree. Walking downtown in the towns and shops where young people go, I don’t see any shortage of young people. Of course, they might only be hanging out, but actually that’s an important part of the shopping experience for young people.

        I think we need some data.

  • aardman

    But it could also be the case that China and India (and the 3rd world in general) turned out mobile-focused because it was a more affordable entry into the internet age and as incomes rise they will exhibit some movement towards PCs even as the first world goes the opposite way, moving towards small-screen mobile. But yes, the future is mobile. Just not as extremely mobile as it is now in some countries.

    • I think that’s a very valid counterargument. I’m sure that will happen to some extent.

      I would also like to know whether or not young people shift from being almost exclusively mobile, to being a mix of mobile/PC as they grow older and start using PCs at work. I think this could also be a factor.

      • Sam

        Is it more affordable or does not everyone need MS Office and a full PC?

        You two bring up great questions.

        It depends if you are are a consumer or worker or maybe both?

  • I have no data, but I am wondering whether or not you are missing the aspect of text entry in the Chinese and Hindu languages. From what I’ve read, text entry in Chinese is not nearly as easy as English, even if you have a keyboard. Mobile devices might actually have an advantage over PCs in text entry in these countries.

    I only know the situation in Japan but I’ll give an example.

    Due to the popularity of i-Mode since 2000, Japanese are very proficient at text entry via the number pads that were found on feature phones. The iPhone introduced an enhanced version of this which we call “flick entry”. This enables us to enter our 50 phonetic characters with a single flick of a touch-enabled number pad (which are converted to the few thousand Chinese characters we use via a predictive text system). As you can imagine, this is very efficient and is by far the most common text entry method on smartphones in Japan.

    Combine this with the fact that Japanese are not taught how to use QWERTY keyboards at K-12, and it’s no wonder that some university students reportedly use “flick entry” on their smartphones or iPads to write their reports or even their dissertations; they can write faster!

    This means that the keyboard advantage of PCs may not be as big in countries that have complicated writing systems like China. It may even be a disadvantage. I think this is definitely something that is worth looking into.

  • RobertinSeattle

    First of all, great piece and brilliant observations, Ben!

    You can actually summarize all of this with one word: Infrastructure.

    When I talk to people about why smart cards and mobile phones were so quickly adopted and scaled so rapidly in Europe and Asia even as the US lagged behind, it’s because of infrastructure. With my latest foray back into the payment industry, I always start with an overview of how credit and debit cards managed to launch so successfully in North America while smart cards were embraced everywhere else.

    During World War II, Europe and Asia were totally embroiled in warfare; even though America fought in the wars, we never bore the brunt of bombings and direct combat. And it was through much of this time that a little company called AT&T built out this incredible copper wire infrastructure that became our telephone network, unmatched anywhere else globally. And because of this, the likes of Visa, Mastercard and banks grew an incredible network of ATM and POS machines that became ubiquitous. And the same thing happened with copper wire dial-up which is how services like AOL surged so quickly. All these things put us at the front of the pack globally but it has now also become our burden as faster connectivity, cell phones and wireless started to take over.

    Naturally, with nothing to hold them back, the European and Asian markets exploded when cell phones and eventually smart phones took over. Wow! You could now make phone calls from almost anywhere after decades of having limited copper wire phone networks that often meant 7 year waits for a landline! (I ran into this firsthand when I lived in Paris for 10 months back in the early 70s.)

    So now we have old service providers like AT&T and Comcast still trying to hold their customers to high-priced bandwidth contracts as well as tiered wireless usage contracts for their cell phones, even as smarter and smarter phones continue to hit the market.

    I’m not sure exactly what is needed to finally break these old ties to antiquated existing infrastructure. But I do know we’ve all been held back in recent years by the very technology that once put us far ahead of the pack as recently as a decade ago.

    That said, it’s always about the next big thing and that’s what startups and entrepreneurship is all about. Hopefully we’ll come back with something so exciting and groundbreaking that it leapfrogs over the concept of the wireless phone and tablet while bringing us a whole new level of access to the information we didn’t know we needed.

    • I was going to make a similar observation about smart cards. It’s a great analogy/example of how existing habits and a “good enough” solution become a barrier to new things.

      As an extension of this, I believe that most (traditional) companies don’t seem to get mobile… and therefore the issues of enterprise IT or enterprise software development related to mobile.

      • RobertinSeattle

        Good point about smart cards. I didn’t include that market in my explanation but it was clearly for the same reasons of wired infrastructure that smart cards also became so prevalent in Europe and Asia: Necessity. Smart cards were basically an offline payment system as opposed to the online system we built out here in North America. So as a result, smart cards have been readily embedded as infrastructure outside of North America.

        What we’re watching now is a perfect storm in which all these different pieces begin to shift and adapt or drop off. As one example, it’s why Visa and Mastercard are being forced to shift to smart cards even though the infrastructure isn’t even close to being ready to accept them and the security they bring with them.

        And with a very established wireless infrastructure now well in place in Europe and Asia, I’m looking for the ‘next-big-thing’ over there that may leapfrog cell phones but not necessarily be completely PC-based as some may still believe. With the combination of cloud services, tablets and other new devices coming out so quickly, I personally believe that the next big thing will be a new device that will embody a quantum shift in how we work and connect.

        Ben and Tim – Can’t wait to hear more from you two about what you see in your crystal ball perspective!

  • jfutral

    Your point previously about a killer app for either smartphone or mobile, it seems in a very real sense, the killer app is the internet. I just read another article about the decline of internet cafes in developing world ( http://qz.com/148734/internet-cafes-in-the-developing-world-find-out-what-happens-when-everyone-gets-a-smartphone/ ). I imagine that it isn’t just that PCs weren’t well integrated in the everyday life of the developing world, but the infrastructure for internet access was an additional hurdle. The smartphone solves that pretty much almost instantly.

    Joe

  • Lei Gong

    I wonder though if by the time the West has cycled through the PC bias generation the distinction between mobile and desktop will have been made largely irrelevant by the proliferation of many different form factors each specialized for different aspects of interaction with the cloud?

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