21 April 2011

Neither neither “web” nor “mobile” but “multi-screen”…

Apparently, we’ve reached a tipping point in the development of the internet. Smart phones represent a brave new world that will replace desktop computers. The web will wither away as people access the internet through dedicated mobile applications rather than a browser.

Some have even gone as far as to suggest that the “web as we know it is dead“.

The argument runs something like this. More smart phones are being sold than PCs at the moment and tablets have gone main-stream since the advent of the iPad. We have always assumed that users are sitting in a stationary location accessing the web through a browser on a computer with a large screen and a generous amount of internet bandwidth. These assumptions need to be challenged as the majority of users will access the internet through mobile devices in the years to come.

However, this argument is flawed as it makes a series of unsustainable assumptions about sales figures and how people are really using their devices.

How are people really using their devices?

Smartphones may be reaching the mass market but how are people really using them? Some recent headline research by Flurry in the US suggested that Americans now spend more time on apps than browsing the web. However, a more detailed dissection of this headline reveals a less impressive story as nearly half of this time is spent playing games and a third on social networking. That does not leave a lot of app time left beyond Facebook and Angry Birds.

Sales of mobile devices need to be put into perspective. The 10 million or so iPads that have been shipped in the last year may be impressive, but this is nothing compared to the 350 million PCs that shipped in 2010.

It’s also important to point out that PC sales are still growing– Gartner estimated that there was a 13% increase in shipments in 2010 on the previous year. Although tablet sales are expected to grow from 70 million in 2011 to more than 108 million in 2012, they are not the only type of mobile hardware enjoying growth as sales of PC laptops are expected to grow from 233 million to 276 million in the same period.

Clearly, people are buying more smart phones and tablets, but they are keeping their PCs and laptops at the ready for any “heavy lifting” that may be required.

Tablets also have yet to make any significant in-roads in enterprise computing where the PC still holds sway and is likely to do so for some time. There is a shortage of any enterprise-class software applications for tablets and doubts over their ability to deliver the required level of security, capacity and performance. Their small screens and lack of keyboards make them less appropriate for data intensive business applications.

Complimentary devices rather than replacements

However, tablets shouldn’t necessarily be seen as replacements for PCs. Tablets and smartphones are more likely spread into the workplace as complimentary devices depending on the differing needs and circumstances of users. After all, there is a distinction between people who are “information readers” and would prefer the immediacy and mobility that a tablet provides and the “information creators” who need the power that a larger machine can provide.

It is clear that the devices that we are using both at home and work are diversifying and will continue to do so in the future. What is less clear is whether this change will mean a decisive shift away from web browsers towards dedicated applications on mobile devices. The future could be a lot more complicated than that as people access the internet through an increasing number of devices and contexts.

Perhaps it is unwise to consider the future in terms of “mobile” or “web”. We are more likely to have to plan for a “multi-screen” future where people chop and change devices depending on their circumstances.

So the web as we know it is certainly not dead. The way in which people use the internet is continuing to evolve and the devices that they are using continue to diversify, but that doesn’t make for such a snappy headline.

Filed under Rants, Strategy, UI Development.