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10 years and 13 per cent – happy birthday mobile internet

Ten years ago, it was great to be in technology. It meant you were clever, but more importantly, probably well endowed with options.

Ten years ago, the foundations were laid for the next hot job: creating the mobile internet. At that time, technology and telecommunications were rising stars. In technology, the focus of choice was the internet. In telecoms, fixed line communications were red hot, while mobile was nearly incandescent.

Combine mobile and the internet and you run out of metaphors and adjectives.

Several years later, the excitement had cooled. While the internet remained a growth area (even if valuations were returning to logical levels), mobile internet was clearly, at that time, a no-go.

There were three key reasons why mobile internet was considered flawed.

First, it was slow. The internet needs plenty of bandwidth to work well. Ten years ago, the average data speed available was 9.6Kbit/s. By 2001, the typical data speed available for most phones had not changed. It was not until 2003 that 3G services first launched outside Japan.

Second, the phones needed to display more than just numbers. They needed colour screens, with processors powerful enough to display images and ideally render at least basic video.

Third, prices needed to come down. At one point, it could cost $40 to download a megabyte of data, if you were outside your home country.

Ten years since standards for the mobile internet were first agreed, the three issues have been addressed: connectivity is far better; colour screens are the default; phones pack processors with as much grunt as a five-year-old PC; and fixed-rate data packages are becoming standard.

So how is take-up?

In the UK, one of the most competitive markets, the penetration rate for mobile internet has shot up. But as so often with a large leap, it is from a relatively low base point – 8 per cent last year to 13 this.

Why is interest in the mobile internet still so low? It is particularly intriguing when other forms of mobile data, such as text messaging, ring tones and mobile e-mail, have been such a success.

It could be that so much of the content aimed at
the mobile internet has simply been a cut-down version of what has triumphed on the PC.

Rather than understanding how the internet might enable applications that would be valuable in a mobile context, the default response often appears to have been to try and drag and drop internet applications that were a hit on the PC on to a mobile phone. More often than not, it hasn’t worked.

The internet does have a role to play in the mobile sector. But starting with the internet on mobile, then looking for customers may well be the wrong approach.

Identifying customers’ needs first, then working out how combinations of mobile and the internet could address this, may be more productive.

Research and opinion by Paul Lee and Tony Cooper of Deloitte

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