Smartphones are not the silver bullet

For years “people at conferences” have been pushing me to develop a major strategy based around mobile phones as the way to help the last 9m offline people to use the internet. Although I’ve been resisting it for years, wanting to see some evidence that mobiles are actually making a difference to new internet users, I have actually been heard to say that we’re getting to a tipping point where maybe smartphones could be the silver bullet. Maybe I’ve been persuaded by my own use of a smartphone – I got it at Christmas and it’s much more of an internet device for me than a phone. I love my smartphone. So I’ve released my inner stats nerd once again and gone in search of evidence to support the hypothesis that smartphones are THE way to help the offline enjoy the benefits of the web.

Ofcom says that the use of internet on a mobile phone has gone up slightly in the last year (from 29% to 31% of all adults) this jumps dramatically when asked if they visit websites on a smartphone (77% of smartphone users do).

Three Mobile’s data (thanks @Tomps_of_London) shows that comparing the uptake of smartphones, in January 2010 42% of people on contracts had a smartphone and in December 2010 that jumped to a staggering 92%; and for PAYG phones there is also a big jump – January 2010 8% of PAYG customers had a smartphone and in December 2010 that jumped to 50%. Ofcom shows 30% of all adults have a smartphone, but much higher for some: 52% of 16-24 yr olds and 43% of people in AB socio-economic group.

So almost a third of adults have smartphones and they’re using the internet on their phones. However, the Ofcom data shows that 36% of adults use the internet just on a pc/laptop which is slightly more than the 34% that use more than one device (eg on a PC/laptop plus an alternative device). So the majority of people are not tweeting on their phone while watching BBC Question Time on their laptops.

The statistic that really jumps out for me is that a tiny 2% of all adults use the internet only on an alternative device and not on a pc/laptop – so only 2% of people use only a phone or a tablet (or other device) and never touch a desktop or laptop computer. This is the same in 2010 as it was in 2009 – it hasn’t even changed. And, although there is a difference based on age it’s not that big a difference: 5% of 16-24 yr olds only use an alternative to a pc/laptop, 3% of the 25 – 34 yr olds, and less than 1% of the 65+. Socio-economic group too makes a very small difference: 3% of DE, 2% of C1/C2, and less than 1% of AB (with 46% of ABs preferring to use more than one device).

I went in search for evidence to prove that the smartphone or a tablet is the silver bullet to help people to get online. There’s no evidence yet. With the rise in the uptake of smartphones, the very small differences in usage by younger people and people in lower socio-economic groups might be a glimmer of a tipping point. Unfortunately just because I like to tweet on my smartphone it doesn’t mean it’s the basis for a whole new strategy. Well, not yet at least.

(Note: The Ofcom UK Adults Media Literacy Audit research took place between April and October 2010. Three Mobile data came from @Tomps_of_London, latest data being from December 2010.)


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