Mobile internet is no longer just internet | John Naughton
Jhe Christmas holidays are the time of year when different generations of the family gather around the dinner table. It is therefore a perfect opportunity for a technological anthropology spot. Here’s how.
At some point, insert into the conversation a contemporary topic about which most people have strong opinions but know relatively little. Jeremy Clarkson, let’s say. There will come a time when someone decides that the only thing to do to resolve the ensuing factual disputes is to “Google it”. Watch what happens next. The younger members of the group will pull out their smartphones and type in the search terms. Most older members will do nothing but make a mental note to check back the next time they’re on their PC and wait for smartphone owners to report what they’ve found.
What does this experience show? Two things, one trivial, the other profound. Most trivially, there is a generational gap in attitudes towards networked technology. The most profound is that it no longer makes sense to speak of “mobile internet”. For most people in the world, there is now only one Internet, the one they access via their mobile phone. Or, as tech analyst Benedict Evans puts it, “mobile is no longer a subset of the internet, which you only use if you’re waiting for a coffee or don’t have a PC in front of you. . primary way people use the Internet.
Mr Evans includes a fascinating graphic from a 2014 Ofcom survey which clearly illustrates this. This shows that mobile devices are used everywhere, not just when people are mobile. 66% of respondents access the Internet on their phone “both at home and away”, and 16% “mainly at home”. So already, for over 80% of smartphone owners in the UK, their phones are probably their primary channel to the internet, and the only way those numbers are likely to increase is by increasing.
This change has long been predicted – for example by Jonathan Zittrain in his book The future of the internet – and how to stop it, but few people thought it would happen so quickly. The avalanche was triggered by the late Steve Jobs when he realized that phones were very powerful networked computers that you could hold in your hand. This led to the launch of the iPhone in 2007, after which the dice were cast. In 10 years or less, most cell phones will be smartphones and 5 billion people will use them as a gateway to the internet.
The implications of this change are truly profound. Mr. Evans once tried to capture it with a metaphor. The tech industry, he wrote, is like our solar system, and the smartphone has replaced the PC like the sun. In this case, the really interesting question is: who “owns” the sun? The answer: Apple and Google, because they control the only two operating systems – iOS and Android, respectively – that matter more, at least in market terms.
Just to give an indication of the magnitude of this, there are approximately 800 million iOS devices and 1.5 billion Android devices currently in use. This means that Apple (which controls iOS) and Google (which controls Android, but with less of an iron fist) are now the most powerful companies in the industry, as they control the two dominant platforms. It also means that Facebook – despite all the gasp about it in the media – is not that bad. It can do all the innovation it likes, but ultimately it doesn’t control what platforms its products run on, so it has to abide by the rules written by Apple and Google. And the same goes for Amazon. And as for Microsoft…well, it actually doesn’t exist on mobile, so it’s doomed to milk its legacy cash cows – Windows and Office running in government and enterprise environments – as it tries to find a way to reinvent themselves.
What does all this mean? First of all, the Internet is finally reaching some kind of maturity – at least in the sense that it is a truly global and ubiquitous communication system – and therefore a stable base on which all sorts of new things can be run. Second, the smartphone will be everything for the foreseeable future. And finally, the emerging new world order of technology is a duopoly, made up of Apple – with its flair for product design and its mastery of marketing and supply chain management – managing a high-end ecosystem range, incredibly cost effective and tightly controlled composed of both hardware and software; and Google, with an undisputed mastery of search, a dominant (but not total) hold on Android, and huge investments in robotics, cloud services, and AI controlling the mass market. Oh – and if the term “duopoly” is new to you, why not google it? On a smartphone.