Defining The Mobile Internet
By Mike Masnick, Thu Dec 23 23:15:00 GMT 2004

Studies are coming out left and right about "mobile Internet usage," but they're all talking about different things. It makes it too easy to hide bad news behind pretty pictures.

It appears the mobile Internet may mean different things to different people, and that creates plenty of confusion when people are trying to compare situations. Does mobile Internet usage refer to messaging platforms such as MMS or SMS? Does it apply to browsing WAP-based portals? Or is it only for accessing the full web using a browser on a smartphone? Also, does the mobile Internet need to be accessed with a mobile phone? While PDAs are increasingly morphing into mobile phones, what about someone using a laptop with a datacard? Or a laptop at a hotspot? Then comes the fuzzy question about a person using a desktop at an Internet cafe or library. That's sort of mobile. It's clearly the Internet.

Unfortunately, in talking about these things, the data isn't always made clear. In an article earlier today on TheFeature, we referenced a report saying that GPRS-enabled handsets were spreading rapidly. However, the BBC article about the report claimed that "Half of UK's mobiles 'go online'". Reading that, it sounds like half of all mobile users access mobile Internet services -- but doesn't indicate what definition of mobile Internet is being used. Reading the details, you realize the report is just talking about Internet-enabled mobile phones, which is quite a different story.

Meanwhile, a report out of South Korea is saying that approximately one quarter of all South Koreans use mobile Internet services. After seeing the headline about UK usage, someone who didn't bother to dig into either article might conclude that the UK is way ahead of South Korea on mobile Internet access, when the reality is probably quite the opposite. Unfortunately, the article from South Korea doesn't help qualify the statement, and simply assumes that there's a common understanding for what is meant when it says "wireless Internet," making it difficult to determine if this is actually significant. After hearing stories about rapid adoption rates for mobile Internet services in South Korea, the 25% might strike people as sounding low. The details, however, do show that there's a major difference based on age range, with much higher percentages of "usage" for younger people.

This may seem like a bit of nitpicking -- but it does matter. As the mobile industry is working on ways (some more successful than others) to get subscribers to adopt mobile Internet offerings, it seems like the focus often becomes too much on the big picture. If someone can claim that 50% of mobile phones are Internet-enabled in the UK, that sounds like a good number. However, if (as the case appears to be) not that many people are actually using that access, then it's indicative of a serious problem that the industry is facing in either educating consumers or in providing them with the applications and services they need. However, in hiding it behind a picture that looks nice, the core issues don't get covered. Knowing what percentage of people are using the "mobile Internet" isn't particularly useful. Knowing what they're doing with it (or not doing with it!) and why is the type of information we should be focusing on.