Rise of the Mobile Web

By Kapil Ohri , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Digital | May 09, 2011
The use of mobile devices to access the internet is growing by leaps and bounds. What lies behind this surge? afaqs! explores.

Some revolutions take place quickly and silently. Take the case of the mobile web - accessing content such as websites, applications, videos and games through internet-connected mobile devices like web-capable mobile handsets or tablet computers. In just one year, the number of active mobile internet users (those who access the internet on mobile devices at least once a week) in India has jumped from 8 million to 25 million, as per an industry estimate.

It is not just about the number of users. Page views too have grown significantly. According to Opera Software (owner of the popular mobile browser, Opera Mini) the total number of page-views went up by 337 per cent (on Opera Mini) in the last 12 months, in India.

The increased usage of the mobile internet is also not just a metro phenomenon. The metros contribute 40 per cent of the total mobile web traffic, while around 60 per cent of the traffic (industry estimate) comes from non-metros.

This is explosive especially when compared with the growth of fixed web (access of internet through desktop computers) which took about a dozen years to reach the 50-million active users mark and generate 60 per cent traffic from non-metros in the country. What is the story behind this revolution? afaqs! Reporter investigates.

A 'unique' web

A large chunk of mobile internet users have not evolved in the usual way of accessing internet on desktop computers first and then moving on to the mobile phone. Instead, they have skipped directly to the mobile internet.

A study titled Mobile Internet in India by Opera Software - in association with the UK-based mobile research agency On Device Research - released in March 2011, points out that 49 per cent of the people who use the mobile internet either never, or infrequently, use the desktop internet in India.

Such users are classified as Mobile Only Internet Users (MOIUs). It has been noticed that MOIUs are different from web consumers who graduated from desktop computers. The former are more mobile savvy and better acquainted with the mobile web than users who access the net on both computers and mobile devices.

They (MOIUs) even explore off-beat content destinations and application stores, apart from popular websites. Users who access the web on both desktops and mobile devices replicate their desktop internet behaviour and tend to visit popular online destinations on the mobile platform. This could be because the mobile is a secondary source of internet consumption for them.

Another peculiar trend which has been observed in the case of mobile web is that 'the consumption of content is not just happening via (mobile) websites'. Users also access content through mobile applications (apps), tiny software packages designed and developed to retrieve and showcase content on particular mobile devices.

The effortless consumption experience offered by apps is considered the main reason behind the popularity of apps. Accessing sites on the phone could prove annoying at times. Apps are designed and developed in such a way that they provide easy user-interface and quick retrieval of content even on low-priced handsets which usually have smaller screens and low data processing power.

Trigger points

The primary reason for the surge in mobile web access is the availability of innovative data packages (internet surfing plans). Almost all the major mobile operators like Aircel, Airtel, Vodafone, Tata Docomo, Idea Cellular and Reliance Communications unveiled unlimited internet consumption data plans for less than Rs 100 per month in the past year.

Many operators have also opted for sachet pricing. They launched internet packages not only for daily, weekly or fortnightly internet consumption but also plans meant for accessing choice websites.

Aircel, for instance, introduced and extensively promoted a Pocket Internet plan/package of 20 MB free internet usage for a day at Rs 5. Similarly, Tata Docomo, the GSM brand of Tata Teleservices, started offering 10 MB of free internet usage for Rs 5 a day. Interestingly, Idea Cellular doesn't have a data usage limit and offers unlimited internet packs in a few of its circles. It launched various internet packs for internet consumption for different durations - Rs 5 (daily pack), Rs 16 (3 days) and Rs 98 (30 days) - without any data usage limit in West Bengal and Kolkata circles.

Apart from duration-based plans, Tata Docomo also launched the innovative Pay-per-Site data plan where users, instead of paying monthly rentals, can select and pay for surfing a single website or buy a combo pack of a few websites which they visit more frequently. For instance, a Tata Docomo subscriber can purchase a data plan for Orkut (Rs 10 per month and free usage up to 200 MB) or buy a 'social networking' combo data pack of five websites - Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Orkut and Nimbuzz - for Rs 25 per month (up to 500 MB of free data usage). Some operators like Reliance Communications and Videocon tied up with Facebook.com to give their subscribers free access. It is called 0.Facebook.com, a special mobile version of the social media site.

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(Some examples of how apps are used)
  • ICICI Bank iMobile: Enables users to check their account balance, transfer funds and pay utility bills. Available on Android Market and Apple iTunes.

  • Sugar Free Natura's 'Step-o-meter': Helps users calculate the amount of calories burnt, average speed and distance travelled as they walk or use the stairs instead of the elevator.

  • Bookmyshow.com: Users can book tickets for movies, plays and concerts. Available on Apple iTunes and Blackberry platforms.

  • Makemytrip.com: Users can book flights, check flight status and get discount deals. Available on Blackberry platform.

  • Naukri.com: Allows search for jobs, view recos, update profiles. On Blackberry platform.

  • NDTV and IBNLive: Features news stories and stream videos live from the TV channel studios. Available on Apple iTunes, Android Market and Blackberry platforms.
The launch of affordable, internet-capable mobile devices also pushed up mobile web access. Intex, for instance, introduced a smartphone powered by Android operating system (OS) for just Rs 5,500. Micromax introduced the A60 (Android OS) for less than Rs 7,000. Spice unveiled a smartphone called 'MI310' (Android 2.2 OS and Wi-Fi enabled) for Rs 7,500. Lemon Mobiles launched a low-cost 3G-enabled mobile phone called W1003G, capable of high speed internet access and mobile TV, for just Rs 3,500.

Though many tablet computers - like Apple iPad, Samsung Galaxy, Olive Pad, Dell Streak and HP Slate 500 - were also launched in the last 12 months, their impact on the growth of mobile internet has been insignificant. High prices (above Rs 20,000) and low-penetration (estimated at around 1,00,000 users) were dampeners.

'App'etising, but...

Many experts think that the increased availability of applications (apps), also acted as a catalyst. Applications are made accessible to users in two ways. They either come as pre-loaded programs on mobile devices - almost all big and small handset makers launched phones with pre-installed apps like Facebook, Twitter and Orkut. Alternatively, apps can be downloaded from the application stores. Nokia (Ovi Store), Apple (iTunes), Blackberry (Apps store) and Samsung have their own app stores. Android (Google) runs an applications store called Android Market.

Airtel launched its applications marketplace called App Central in February 2010. Aircel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular also opened their apps stores. Reliance Communications and Virgin Mobile tied up with one of the largest international apps store called GetJar (M.GetJar.com) to launch co-branded apps store available on R-World and M.Virginin.Getjar.com for their subscribers. Opera Software too launched an apps store, available at MobileStore.Opera.com.

It is estimated that about 40,000 unique applications related to various genres like entertainment, social networking and utility were developed and uploaded across multiple apps stores in the last 12 months in India. According to an estimate, the consumption of apps went up from 4-5 lakh apps (downloaded every day) in early 2009 to more than four million apps (downloads per day, almost all of them free) in early 2011.

...will advertisers click on it?

Despite the fact that the mobile web has gained traction among users, it has not clicked in a big way with advertisers yet. Most of the available mobile web ad inventory (more than seven billion unique ad impressions are available per month) is not utilised. It is estimated that the size of advertising on the mobile internet is between Rs 25 and Rs 50 crore, which is pretty small compared to the size of online advertising (above Rs 1,000 crore) in India.

What is stopping advertisers from experimenting with mobile web advertising? Many in the mobile advertising business think that mobile web is in its infancy and advertisers are not even aware that it exists. Moreover, there are few tools to measure mobile internet campaigns precisely. Not much data - demographic and geographical details - is shared by telecom operators. Data is crucial to leverage the targeting possibilities of the mobile web and take informed advertising decisions.

Poised to keep going

It is inevitable that the mobile web growth will overtake fixed web sooner than later. The base of internet-capable mobile handsets is bigger (250 million units) than the installed base of desktop computers (around 35 million) in India.

Also, the mobile handsets (internet-capable) market is growing at a higher rate (around 12 per cent every year) than desktop computers. The latter has been more or less stagnant since the last few years. According to the Manufacturers Association of Information Technology (MAIT) sales of desktop computers grew by 9 per cent (CAGR) from 2004 to 2010. It is estimated that the number of mobile internet users will cross the 50 million mark by the end of this year. As more internet-capable devices get launched this promises to be one wave that is going to gather many more consumers as it advances.

Based on interviews with Ajaay Gupta, CMD, Ching's Secret, Ajay Vaishnavi, telecom director, Times Internet, Amit Lall, DGM (mobile marketing), Mobile2Win, Anuj Kumar, ED (South Asia), Affle, Asif Ali, president, ZestAdz, Atul Satija, VP and MD (Asia-Pacific), InMobi, Chandrashekhar Sohoni, founder, Eterno Infotech, Guneet Singh, lead, consumer marketing, Google India, Lalit Bhise, CEO, Mobisy, Manish Mishra, country manager, Buzz City, Mahesh Narayanan, country manager, BD, Google India, Mohit Gundecha, head, Mig33 India, Mrityunjay Mishra, co-founder, JuxtConsult, Rajiv Hiranandani, co-founder, Altruist-Mobile2Win, Saurabh Singh, head, sales, Navteq Media Solutions, Nokia and Vinay Kumar, CEO, StratosHear Technologies.

(The story was first published in afaqs! Reporter magazine, April 16-31, 2011 issue)

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