Every day there seems to be a new figure released that enforces the notion that mobile is also eating the world. The problem with most of the coverage of this type of data is that (1) the pace of mobile adoption shouldn’t come as a surprise and (2) the definition of what constitutes ‘mobile’ needs to be revised.
With smartphone penetration about to cross 60% and tablet ownership almost doubling from last year to a third of the U.S. population in 2013, it’s no coincidence that the amount of incremental traffic that mobile brings to the 50 most-visited internet properties now averages 28% (reaching a high of 223% in one instance) according to comScore. In response to this, media companies are reinventing their content consumption experiences to meet the growing demands of mobile users. Atlantic Media launched Quartz, a digital-first, mobile-oriented publication late last year while The New York Times is in the process of redesigning its online presence (slated for release this fall) to resemble the single-page stream layout popularized by social networks. Even native web media outlet ReadWrite is leveraging responsive design to adapt to their multidimensional mobile audience. This design trend will only accelerate the transition of internet activity from the desktop to mobile devices.
Remember, the personal computer, which reached the mass market more than 15 years before the web browser, was never intended to be a web-centric device. The evolution of wireless technologies and networks combined with the invention of smartphones and tablets are allowing digital companies to finally hit the reset button and create internet experiences that are designed to be more useful, from both a content and advertising perspective, than the current incarnation of the commercial web which borrowed heavily (to everyone’s eventual detriment) from print.
What this means for evaluating the mobile phenomenon is that instead of accepting all these stats at face value, we need to look at mobile’s ability to drive incremental adoption and create new monetization opportunities above and beyond the natural growth that comes from cannibalizing PC-based audiences and revenue streams.
This brings us to the issue of what exactly constitutes ‘mobile’. Typically we think of smartphones and tablets as providing mobility. But if you take into account that over 90% of tablets being purchased only use WiFi and, as a result, are primarily used inside the home, what differentiates these devices from laptops, which we consider PCs, aside from the form-factor? If you also include the divergent behavior of smartphone and tablet users the whole concept of what mobile is and represents needs to be redefined.
Instead of thinking of mobile as a device, we need to think of it as an activity. The two data points that matter most in defining mobile activity then are a user’s location and their data network. So if someone is at home or at work they shouldn’t be considered mobile. In this context the use of smartphones and tablets (instead of desktops and laptops) for accessing the web and certain apps (that also exist as websites) is done out of convenience rather than the need for a specific capability- and usually enabled over a WiFi network. The only experiences that should be classified as mobile are in locations where people usually don’t spend an extended amount of time at with their devices and are typically connecting to the internet by way of cellular or MiFi networks- so pretty much everywhere else. Building products and services that maximize utility in these scenarios is where mobile becomes useful. If we can agree on a better definition of mobile, then we can better quantify this opportunity, understand network constraints and figure out solutions that create new value.
This isn’t to say that devices that use WiFi networks or are used at home aren’t valuable- especially when you consider IP-based ad targeting and the second screen opportunity (something I’ll touch on in a future post). It’s just that the mobile activity on devices in these locations don’t generate incremental value unless they are using mobile-only applications (such as HotelTonight or Uber) and could, in fact, be destroying value for certain companies when taking into account that mobile users monetize at a lower rate than their desktop equivalent.