We’re in the middle of a mobile web revolution. However, its not iPhone, smart phones or the west that is leading this revolution. No, if you want to go to the epicentre of where the mobile web is really changing the status quo and leap frogging the incumberants then you have to go to Africa.
Thousands of miles from the innovation centres of Silicon Valley and the legions of iPhones and Androids, in Africa feature phones are the top dog. But no one surfs on features phones! Wrong. Where in the world are mobile devices creating more page views and unique users than their PC counterpoints? The US? Nope. Japan or South Korea? They’re well known for their technical prowess and eagerness to embrace a mobile digital lifestyle, but nope and nope. Its Nigeria, and probably with a Nokia.
It shouldn’t be a surprise. While here in the west an iPhone or iPad is often used a supplementary device for accessing the web, such as when we are out and about or watching the TV. In Africa where money is tighter and broadband infrastructure is more limited, there is often the choice: a phone or a computer. There is no surprise many opt for the former when it has an always on connection, can be with you at all times and, well, doubles as a phone as well. Many people in africa only access the web on a phone. Combine this with Opera Mini which compresses traffic by up to 90% and you have a viable and affordable way to access the internet, perhaps for the first time.
The mobile web has been a revelation in the west. It allows us to kill time on the train to work, stops us from getting lost when in a new part of town, chat with friends when in a coffee shop or lets us see a review before deciding to go to see a film or try a new restaurant. However much added convenience this gives us, remember back to when we first got online at all. Millions of people across Africa and the developing world are now accessing free information sources such as Wikipedia for perhaps the first time. They can talk to relatives or friends in other villages and town over Facebook and email. They can do all the things that we now take for granted, that before was only available for the privileged few, or they had to visit and pay at a internet cafe to access. When I climbed Kilimanjaro a number of years ago our younger guide told me he used to visit internet cafe’s once a week or month to email friends. I wonder if he now is using Facebook on a phone in his own time, even when up the mountain?
Beginning of the era of mobile dominance
So back to Nigeria. An incredible thing has started to happen. The growth in the mobile web has always been strong there, but after a brief flirtation in April, since the 3rd July people have surfed more on mobile than they do on desktop on almost every Sunday in the month. Since the 6th August, mobile surfing also took over desktop surfing on Saturdays as well. Now the mobile web traffic has grown enough that since the 30th August (a Tuesday), mobile web is also beating out the desktop web in a number of midweek days too. By October the mobile web will probably be consistently ahead across the whole month. This would make Nigeria the first country for that to happen. Incredibly, Opera Mini is bigger in Nigeria than even Internet Explorer.
Other countries are not far behind though, and not surprisingly most of these are also in Africa. You can see similar trend start to happen in Niger, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Sudan, Tanzania, and more.
Over on the subcontinent
It isn’t just Africa though. Over on the subcontinent, India, one of the largest countries on the planet in terms of population and many other metrics is also well on its way to the mobile market presiding over the desktop market. And yes, they mostly use feature phones such as Nokias as well. If that isn’t enough to make the bean counters sit up and notice that people do surf on feature phones, the trend is mirrored in neighbour Bangladesh (pop. 142.3 million).
The revolution has just begun
We’re at the very early days of the mobile web surpassing the desktop in terms of usage. Over the next few months and years it will likely spread from just Nigeria to large parts of the developing world. There will be huge opportunities for innovation with new products and services designed to take advantage of these mobile first economies. We’ve already seen the rise of mobile payments and banking in Africa before the rest of the world has caught on. There will likely be many more. Hopefully a number of these innovations and services will come from local companies and entrepreneurs.
What can you do to take advantage of this revolution? First, don’t listen to those experts that claim the mobile web is only on WebKit and only on iPhone, Android and maybe BlackBerry at a push. People surf with whatever they have, and whatever works for them. Feature phones are a very real part of the mobile web, and they’re not a minority, even globally. Opera rules the roost because it took feature phones seriously. You can benefit if you do too.
How do you deliver everywhere? The Web, of course. Not the Web where you browser sniff and only let in WebKit or worse yet only iPhones, but mobile web sites written in HTML where you let in anyone that cares about your content or service. Sure, give an optimised experience to smartphone browsers if you want, have separate smartphone site or app if you can afford it, but don’t forget to make sure you gracefully degrade to allow the other browsers to access your content too.