What does mobile scale mean?

Some time in the next six months, the number of smartphones on earth will pass the number of PCs. 

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This shouldn't really surprise anyone: the mobile business is much bigger than the computer industry, and there have been more mobile phones than PCs since at least the late 1990s. There are now perhaps 3.5bn to 4bn* mobile phones, replaced every two years, versus 1.7-1.8bn PCs replaced every 5 years.

But there was always a wall between the two industries - neither really saw or paid attention to or sold to the other, or if they did (like Microsoft) they didn’t get anywhere. Smartphones broke down that wall - suddenly tech companies could sell to an industry with $1.2 trillion annual revenue, and suddenly mobile operators are faced with people who think about product cycles in weeks rather than years.

Both sides are slightly shell-shocked, and I often feel that neither has quite internalised the scale of the change. Mobile operators still try to make messaging services, and tech people still get surprised that you can sell more phones in a quarter than the PC industry sells in a year. 

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The driving dynamic is that smartphones are not actually a new industry - rather they are a category change sweeping through a huge industry that was already there, hiding in plain sight. The great majority of those mobile users are converting to mobile phones running Unix, and mobile phones (on average) are replaced every two years, meaning this is a very rapid cycle. 

So we will end up with somewhere over 3bn smartphones in use on earth, almost double the number of PCs. (In fact, the more meaningful question is how many people will have a data plan: when you go to low income levels in emerging markets you find people who are happy to buy a $50 Android phone but operators who cannot afford to give that person a gig of data a month for a dollar.)

In truth, none of us have really internalised what change this means. The fact that Apple makes more money than Microsoft or that smartphones outsell PCs isn’t really the point. Rather, the entire internet is being changed fundamentally - both the size and the character of the internet are going to look quite different from what we have been used to. 

First, scale. There are perhaps 900m consumer PCs on earth, and maybe 800m corporate PCs. The consumer PCs are mostly shared and the corporate PCs locked down, and neither are really mobile - at best you can take them from table to table. Those 3bn smartphones will all be personal, and all mobile. So the internet goes from a shared device at home to a screen in everyone’s pocket. And that’s without considering several hundred million tablets, which blur all of these boundaries. 

This means that the internet gets several times bigger. One could talk about time, or engagement, or use, or value, and all of these metrics are problematic, but it is clear that mobile devices will become the dominant part of the internet - we will stop talking about ‘mobile internet’ in much the same way that no-one talks about ‘new media’ anymore. 

Just as importantly, the character of that internet changes too, and not just because of mobility and screen size. On the desktop, ‘internet' has really meant ‘web’, with a few exceptions such as Spotify or Skype. Everything happened inside that browser window, and that didn’t really change at all for 15 years. On mobile, clearly, that is not the case - we have a much richer array of routes to market and models for interaction, and this complexity and innovation is growing all the time. The web is no longer the only option and Google & Facebook are no longer the only option. Some of these changes in dynamics were obvious from the start - others have taken time to appear. A good example is the way that smartphones remove the winner-takes-all benefits of a leading social network, and so obliterate Facebook’s monopoly on social. There are more changes coming - mobile is changing all the time in a way that the desktop internet did not.

In a sense, then, one could suggest that smartphones liberate the internet from the browser in the same way that the browser liberated it from the command line. 

All of this means that the operating environment looks very different, and a lot of our assumptions need to change. A lot more is up for grabs, and the scale of success looks different. When a dozen guys in a garage with a hot service get struck by lightning, that means 50m or 100m users, not 1m, and in time it might mean 1bn. A great many industries that came unscathed through the first wave of the internet - the desktop wave - are now facing disruption. Lots of things that look like the right idea are going to turn out to be blind alleys, like Yahoo, but at the same time even irrelevance can mean a big business - Facebook has lost its monopoly but the mobile opportunity may be big enough that that doesn't matter. Web search is no longer the only discovery channel but Google is doing better than anyone else at finding what comes next. 

It's now the season that people are supposed to write sets of predictions of what will happen next year. For me, the prediction that comes out of this is confusion, change and opportunity. I really don't know what will be the most important thing that will happen in 2014, but that's kind of the point - everything is on the table. 


*There are around 6.5bn mobile connections, but a great many people have more than one SIM