The future is mobile and apps, except that it isn't.

There are two charts that capture a lot of the way we think about mobile today. In the first, we see that mobile devices are approaching a majority of traffic, and in the second, that a large proportion of all web traffic (a majority in the USA in this instance) and the vast majority of mobile traffic is coming from apps rather than the web. 

However, if you're not careful you can get quite the wrong impression from these. 

First, look at where people actually use their devices. 

This is a picture that you see in all the relevant data (use of cellular versus wifi data, for example) - most use of 'mobile' devices happens at home or at work, or sitting down in a coffee shop - at any rate, not just while you're walking down the street or queueing at a shop. People use their mobile devices everywhere, and mostly, that actually means when they're sitting down. The fact that the IBM data above, like much 'mobile' data, actually includes tablets, is something of a clue - people obviously use tablets sitting down. But that's true of smartphones too. 

When we talk about designing for mobile use, we tend to talk in terms of building experiences that people can see in brief moments while they glance at their phone, because they're queuing or walking or waiting for a lift or whatever. By extension, that means that 'mobile' can - no, should - be a subset of the full experience. But actually, people do do that but they also, increasingly, spend half an hour burrowing though the web or into an app, while they're sitting at home, even with a laptop in reach. So the mobile experience needs to be complete. That might, paradoxically, mean that your total experience might need to be edited, to fit, but it's dangerous to pick a subset of your offer and put just that on mobile - it might be your only touch point. Conversely, one could argue that in some cases it's the desktop experience that should be a subset of the mobile one. 

Second, about that app share of use. The great majority of app use is of course Facebook and YouTube, and in fact, app use of the internet overall is highly concentrated into a relatively small number of highly successful apps. If one looks at how people use the web on the desktop, though, you see something very similar. Most people have perhaps 10 or 20 web sites that they visit regularly in a conscious, directed way - they type the URL or click a bookmark or (most likely) search for the service name. Everything else they get to though social or search. And on mobile, most people, again, have perhaps 10 or 20 services that they use regularly - except that on a smartphone those are apps. And everything else they get to through search or social - except that social happens as a web view inside the Facebook or Twitter app and so counts as 'app use' as well. 

That is, there's a very fat head to the distribution of use on both mobile and desktop, and on mobile that goes to apps while on the desktop it generally remains within the web browser. Apps unbundle the top services into their own apps. But the dynamic for everything else has changed less - it's still on the web, mostly. As I wrote here, if people have a relationship with your service such that they'll want to put your icon on the home screen - if they'll make a conscious choice to go to you - then you should have an app as well as a website. If you're in that category then everything has changed relative to the desktop internet. But if not, then the web, search and social are still most of the story. Hence, one of the interesting trends at the moment is the attempt to bridge the web with native, non-web experiences. We see that with Google Now and Facebook Messenger (desktop sites where you place an order while signed into Facebook can send messages to you in Messenger) and with a lot of what Google is thinking with Chrome. That's not really here just yet, though. 

Connecting the next billion

A nicely unpolished video from Digicel Papua New Guinea on what connecting the next billion actually means.

In no particular order: 

  • People steal the solar panels (this is an even bigger problem with diesel generators)

  • The network goes down if it rains for too long

  • Access to power of any kind is crucial for your users

  • How many different distribution networks does a mobile operator have to build?

  • Most of those sites probably aren't going to be able to handle everyone in the area watching YouTube (hence - data pricing, zero-rating and the problem with net neutrality)

In the next 5-10 years, almost every single person you see on the screen is going to own a smartphone. What they pay for data, and how they think about charging, is another matter. Meanwhile, one might suggest that for some of them a mobile phone is the first electrical device of any kind they've owned. 

Android taxonomies

For reference, and, perhaps, discussion: 'Android' means lots of different things, and there's a lot of confusion about forks, Xiaomi, China and AOSP, as well as 'the next billion'. So this is how I try to think about this. First, there are actually (at least) six types of 'Android' in the market today:

  1. 'Stock' Android, as seen on Google's Nexus devices, complete with Google services (but with tiny unit sales)

  2. 'Modified' Android, as seen on phones from Samsung, Sony, LG etc, complete with Google services - generally, these are modifications that no-one especially likes, but which Google explicitly allows

  3. 'AOSP' or open Android, as seen in China - essentially these phones are the same as number 2, but with no Google services and apps from the Chinese portals embedded instead. Hence Samsung, Sony etc sell their phones in China without Google services, but few other changes

  4. (or perhaps 3.1) 'Modified' Android as seen on Xiaomi phones and those of its followers, which people actually seek out, and which comes without Google services in China and with them elsewhere

  5. ROMs and third-party implementations of Android that are available for any handset, such as both Xiaomi's MIUI and Cyanogen (an a16z portfolio company), which may or may not have Google services included or accessible. Again, these contain optimisations and improvements that make people seek them out

  6. Forked Android, such as the Kindle Fire phone: Android heavily modified to produce a different experience, and Google refuses to allow Google services to run on them (other than plain old web search, AKA POWS). Note that Xiaomi and Cyanogen are not forks.

Th first two or perhaps three I would describe as 'closed' Android and the second three are 'open' Android, certainly from the perspective of device manufacturers. The first two (actually just number 2) have over a billion users outside China (as of the numbers given at IO last summer). Versions 3 and 4 have a further 400-500m users, almost all in China, and there are perhaps 50m users of 5 ( a very rough estimate) both inside and outside China, partly overlapping with the others. Six - well, ask Amazon. 

In parallel, it's worth breaking down Android users in a similar way:

  1. ROM users (very roughly, perhaps 50m people)

  2. People who like to install the kinds of apps that do things Apple doesn't allow on iOS and Google does allow on Android (note that Apple now allows rather more things and Google does not, oddly, allow gambling apps). I had a go at quantifying this here

  3. People with a personal preference for Android, who none-the-less do not actually install ROMs or do many things that are blocked on iOS (the difference between this and 2 is a grey area, obviously)

  4. People who don't actually care very much one way or the other between Android and iOS, and (for example) got a good deal, preferred the handset design or (especially) the larger screen size that used only to be available on Android, and indeed might switch back and forth between iOS and Android

  5. People who can't afford iPhones or other high-end phones and so got Android as the cheaper option.

  6. People who actually don't care about smartphones at all, and so just bought a 'cheap phone' (or just a phone with a good camera, say), and happened to get an Android since it's taken over most of the mid range and low-end, and who don't do much with the ecosystem

  7. People in emerging markets who really can't afford anything other than a $50 or $100 Android phone but are enthusiastically taking advantage of everything it can do.

  8. As above, but have a relatively expensive data plan, limited 3G coverage and, often, limited access to power to charge their phone (this one is is where the 'next billion' will sit)

 Some of these categories (but obviously not all) also apply to iOS, of course, but selling phones only at $600 for the latest model creates a more uniform customer base. 

Layered across both of these is huge geographic variation. The must-have phone for teenagers in San Francisco and Jakarta is very different. But the underlying point about both lists is that tech and mobile have grown far past the point that there is really a single market for anything. When you connect everybody you get, well, everybody, and they're not all like you.