Understanding the Global Mobile Web

In the latest mobile focused podcast with Benedict Evans and myself, we touched on a theme that needs more fleshing out. That of a future only possible because of mobile computers/smartphones. When I detail the mobile first world in articles, presentations, and reports, what I highlight is not only the impact but the necessity of mobile to move computing forward. The PC in the shape of a notebook or desktop took computers as far as those shapes would allow. There are very few new users for PCs of that design. The PC in the shape of a tablet can take computing even farther, particularly in business environments, and that form factor gets a PC into the hands of more people. The PC in the shape of the smartphone, however, brings computing to everyone. Perhaps more importantly, the smartphone can bring the internet to everyone. More revolution will come from the PC in the shape of a smartphone than from any previous computing product in history. It is because of this, we will see countless opportunities emerge and it is a future only possible because of mobile.

The smartphone opens the door to new possibilities because it is the first time the technology industry is accessible to everyone. In fact, over the next decade or so, we will watch smartphones become a commodity. Estimates are, by 2020, quality, powerful smartphones could cost $10. The mobile web is already bigger than the desktop web and, in a few years, the mobile web will dwarf the desktop web. It is a cold hard fact, the future of the Internet is mobile. This reality brings out some interesting implications.

Global Mobile Web Browsing

There was a debate last year around the disparity between iOS web browsing and Android web browsing. It seemed a conundrum — Android had 2x the user base but much less of the global browsing share. As you see from this chart from NetMarketShare, only recently has Android overtaken iOS in global web browsing share, and it is still very close.

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 9.12.37 AM

When we include Android AOSP and Google’s Android, there are well more than double the active devices compared to iOS. But why did it take so long? There are many theories but there is one in particular I find insightful and adds a bit of needed clarity to the global mobile web discussion.

The bulk of Android’s growth and market share is in the lower tiers of smartphone price bands. My estimates put premium Android price tiers at roughly 15% of the global Android installed base. Meaning much of Android’s installed base globally consists of non-premium/lower price tier smartphone users. This explained quite a bit of the global web browsing paradox. Apple has a significant installed base of premium users, larger than Google’s premium users, and those customers spend more time browsing the web and consuming internet data. As I started researching the mobile web in emerging markets, it became clear one of the factors for this disparity was, because of Apple’s premium customer base, this audience could afford to liberally browse the web. Where much of Android’s installed base, having to deal with pricey and slow internet connection times, and no wi-fi at home, could not.

This insight becomes even more clear when we look at this chart from Jana.com showing the number of hours of minimum wage work required to pay for the average data plan.


Due to the infrastructure challenges in many of these markets, consumers are very aware of not only how much data they are using, but also the size of the application they are downloading. This is a fascinating quote from a post from LightSpeed Venture Partners, an investment firm focused on India.

So, what is an ideal app size, especially in markets like India with challenged infrastructure?

The ideal size is 10-15MB globally. Idea size for an app for tier 2/3 countries (like India) is below 5MB. 500MB+ is a non-starter. At 50MB+ the conversion rates fall off dramatically. On Android and iOS, conversion rates dip by 50% in tier 1 nations for non-game apps above 50MB. In tier 2 and tier 3 nations, conversion rates dip by 50% for games above 15MB.

It is becoming clear the high cost of data plans in many emerging markets are influencing how they use the mobile web and the apps they use and download.

The Light Web

Understanding this leads me to consider the role web apps may play in these markets. There is a web app called Zomato, which is sort of like Yelp for India. Zomato is a great example of a light application that is useful via a web app in those regions where light applications are necessary. It is true native apps are still dominant in these markets, however, we are still dealing with only the top 30-40% of the global mobile audience that has a smartphone and a data plan. As we extend that reach into the broader 60-70%, a healthy portion of those customers will be even more sensitive to the costs of data and size of applications they consume.

This is why the “light web” is a reality for the next billion users. Whether by lighter/more efficient native apps or, as I believe, web apps, the light web is better positioned for the next billion. Interestingly, even Uber has a robust web app. It is possible the powerful cloud and light, thin client computing paradigm is destined for emerging markets.

It is clear, thanks to PCs in the shape of a smartphone and the inevitable inclusion of robust sensors in these devices even at low prices, that we are heading to a fascinating future not only made possible because of mobile devices but empowered by them. This future will pose great challenges to many incumbents but even greater opportunities for the innovators.

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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

9 thoughts on “Understanding the Global Mobile Web”

  1. Ben could it also be that these Data doesn’t provide the entire picture about Android usage rate because of all the complexity that come with a market as Huge, different, and fragmented in to thousand phone company and Launcher version etc..

    what is the margin of Error ?

    1. Not in the way that that companies like NetMarketShare and Statcounter count website visitations by device. What we are looking at here is a device that connects to the internet globally. I have this data broken out by region as well and it matches family closely with our installed base numbers for those regions.

      We can really only draw a few conclusions from the piles of data I have on Android usage when it comes to Internet tasks.. Either it is as a propose above that there is a high degree of sensitivity to liberally browse the web due to both poor connections and expensive data tariffs. Or Android users simply browse the web less. But as I point out all things are not equal in the iOS and Android camps. That all plays a role in how we understand how these devices are used. But the point remains we have to the top 30-40% of users, income class, social class, etc., right now. As we get into the more rural villages and the mass of lower percentile in all statistics, we are dealing with new problems the top 30-40% don’t have. That will have a massive impact in our approach of sustainably connecting the next billion users.

  2. 2 questions, whose answers I’m sure vary by country or block of countries:
    1- what percentage of users are on unlimited data ? I pay about $20 for my unlimited plan, other plans don’t really make sense anymore, except the $3 one with 50MB data for those who don’t need data except for emergencies ?
    2- what percentage of users never have access to wifi ? Most people around me have wifi so much of the time that they barely use any data anyway, especially since app updates can be configured to only happen over wifi.

  3. This is a very interesting topic, and I think that there are many plausible outcomes. I find it very hard to see which scenario is the most likely and where the issue of data costs will eventually lead us. Just to outline a few;

    HTML is a rather verbose language. The tags themselves are verbose and also the fact that document structure is inseparable from content adds to the noise. If you could transfer only the content in a lightweight format like JSON, then in many cases you can make the document several times smaller. Therefore if the app is well designed, the data consumption of the native app may well be smaller. Also, well designed apps will cache data more efficiently than the web. This might lead to apps actually being desirable for reducing data consumption, but having to be better crafted. I am not totally convinced that the “light-web” is the only way to go to reduce data consumption.

    As I think you informed me on Twitter, emerging markets often obtain apps through side loading from SD cards. If this truly is the case, then downloading apps will not always be necessary.

    The app store and indeed Google Play may be irrelevant for the next billion. Instead, there might emerge a network of side loaded apps distributed via SD cards. In fact, I think such a network already exists. It would be interesting if somebody made this legal, much in the same way that iTunes made downloading songs legal.

    Internet advertising consumes data. Since ads are often media rich and are seldom cached, you might even see ads consuming the majority of bandwidth. This would certainly be the case when you are playing a game like Angry Birds that doesn’t really need an Internet connection to be playable. Consumers in emerging markets might hate advertisements even more than we do.

    If the web becomes more important and apps less so, it opens the door to OSs without a strong ecosystem like Windows Phone and Firefox OS.

    Facebook has been trying hard for quite a while to reduce the data usage of the Facebook App and the cost of using data through the internet.org initiative. We hear a lot about Zero rating, for example. On the other hand, Google is taking a very different approach with projects like Loon. Facebook is trying to work with the current infrastructure; Google is trying to create a new infrastructure. It will be fascinating to see which approach prevails. As I understand it, Google may have trouble taking a Facebook-like approach because their most popular asset (by engagement), YouTube, guzzles up huge amounts of data. Although project Loon is a “moonshot”, it has huge implications for the future competitiveness of Google. Project Loon might be a high-stake gamble that Google cannot afford to lose.

    1. After writing this comment, I tested out Opera Mini because it can significantly compress web sites. I was very surprised to see that it reduced the download size of a text-only blog by over 95%.

      If this is typical, then I will have to retract my comment about JSON being more light weight than HTML. If you are using Opera Mini, then that’s going to be very hard to beat.

  4. I bought a $69 power saw a week ago because it was appropriate to my light-duty needs (only a few projects per year that need to cut through more than a couple of 1X2’s that my old hand saws MORE easily handle). Of course, the contractors who framed our new sidewalk yesterday, or the ones who did a new retaining wall, didn’t use the handsaws or cheapo power saws; they get professional gear for their level of usage.

    I’m on the internet a lot, often from my phone. I want a fast, capable machine for browsing when I’m on the go. Also, I want a solid Twitter client, a good tracker for my cycling, quality video-messaging, as good a photo as I can get, etc. If I didn’t have lots of value-giving uses that keep in on a couple hours per day, yes, a much less capable, less expensive phone would make a lot of sense.

    Obviously, you can’t buy a $600 phone every couple of years, or afford a high-capacity data subscription, if you don’t have the income. But Methinks the Job To Be Done, more than the price, determines who uses what phone.

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