EDITOR’S NOTE: This Big Picture essay wraps up our month-long special report on the Mobile Enterprise. Starting tomorrow, the entire report will be available only as a premium publication (in PDF format) for those who pay to receive it.
Today’s mobile device is the new personal computer. The average smart phone is as powerful as a high-end Mac or PC of less than a decade ago. And as billions of people worldwide rely on these ultra-compact machines for more and more tasks, the mobile device might qualify as humankind’s primary tool.
We are only just beginning to fathom what this reality implies for business, culture, and society. Our phones can now track our movements though the physical world. They can record our social interactions, store our personal histories, keep tabs on our likes and dislikes, and track our Internet content consumption, app usage, and purchasing behavior. As we outsource ever more of our decisions and memory functions to smart devices, our tools are gaining a powerful advantage over us. They live in our pockets; they know who we are. They’re learning more and more about us all the time. That’s why smart phones and tablets are uniquely positioned to predict what businesses should do to serve us best. Our devices are both comforting and a little frightening at the same time.
With over five billion individuals currently armed with mobile phones, we’re talking about unprecedented levels of access and insight into the psyches of over two-thirds of the world’s population. From any perspective—commercial or Orwellian—this is no small matter.
In the late 1990s, dot-commers were fascinated by a chart showing how long it took for each of the major media—daily newspapers, radio, and television—to reach 50 percent of U.S. households. Each of those technologies required decades to cross that threshold, but the Web took only a few years. Yet Web penetration pales by comparison with mobile today, in several important respects: Mobile usage is about individuals—both adults and kids—not just households. Mobile devices are bringing sweeping change to developing and poor nations, not just the industrial world. In other words, mobility has democratized computing and global Net access.
Part of this story goes beyond expansion of mobile subscribers. The transition to new devices is taking place with lightning speed, too. Clamshell and candy-bar phones designed primarily for voice communications (known as “feature phones”) are giving way to smart phones, and growth in access to high-speed 3G (and now 4G) networks continues to accelerate around the world.
The number of global 3G mobile Internet subscribers should approach a billion within a year or so, with the highest penetration rates in Japan (98 percent), Korea (80 percent), the U.S. (48 percent), and the U.K. (38 percent). And where 3G penetration has been low, year-over-year growth is blazingly fast—81 percent growth in Russia, 148 percent in Brazil, and 941 percent in China.
From a business perspective, no one can ignore the implications of mobility. Although the changes may be too numerous to track, it is possible to group them into seven fundamental transformations.
From time immemorial, humans as a species have relied for their survival on an ability to discover relevant information, whether that was knowing where the wildebeest drank water at night to ensure a meal the next day or finding the nearest ER during a medical emergency to save a life. Google’s “PageRank” algorithm, which helps find answers to 70 percent of the world’s online search queries, has changed how we as a species find the information we want or need. Now Google Instant provides search results before we’ve even finished typing the query. Sure, this matters on a PC, but it matters even more on a mobile. Mobile search has made discovery ubiquitous in the physical world of daily life.
Geo-tagging and location-aware services, in combination with search, have made discovery a two-way street. Apps such as Foursquare give users a means to “check in” at physical locations, giving friends, businesses, and brands a way to discover them. Startups such as Locately go even further, tracking car routes and foot paths on shopping trips.
Two-way discovery has broad implications for business. Shoppers can use their phone’s camera and apps such as Red Laser or ShopSavvy to scan the bar code of any product, enabling instant price comparison among dozens of retailers. If they’ve signed up for Amazon Prime (which provides unlimited two-day shipping for a flat annual fee), they can lock in two-day delivery from Amazon before they’ve left the store. Sure, Amazon, like other online retailers, is a free rider in this scenario, at the retailer’s expense. But consumers win on price, access, and convenience in ways that were inconceivable before mobile devices. This alone will force changes in the way all retailers do business.