Why mobile matters

Most usually, when I’m speaking on an issue related to media convergence or the future of news or other fun related topics, the subject of mobile technology comes up.

In poorer rural and urban communities where the first wave of household IT infrastructure passed by, the notion that smart phones and other Web-capable handheld devices — which are cheaper, more ubiquitous and often more socially and culturally prized than a home PC — just may transform the so-called digital divide is hot conversation.

But it’s worth revisiting the depths of why that is.

First, let’s make clear it’s a big deal.

Back in February and again in March, Google CEO Eric Schmidt suggested that all technologies need to be developed with a ‘mobile first’ strategy. His point was that in the same way the first iterations of many uses of the Internet just took previous iterations of media — like, say, newspapers — and plopped them onto an entirely new universe. We ought not make the mistake. The mobile Web is a different — arguably larger — beast.

More than three years ago Professor Leonard Waverman from the London Business School talked about how mobile technology can impact economic growth in emerging markets

Next, let’s show that there is a conflict here.

As the Washington Post reported in February, “according to the results of an NTIA survey, 64 percent of households have broadband access compared with 51 percent in October 2007.”

The sentiment of those studies suggest that broadband is rapidly proliferating by people of color and in lower economic brackets — some overlap there from proportionally representation of non-white people living in poverty — but there’s a breakdown in usage. The ‘digital divide’ happens when poorer, more likely non-white people aren’t using or don’t have access to the Web — the most powerful research, education and communications tool in the history of human kind — but more affluent, more likely white people do, there’s a problem.

Thirdly, let’s show that mobile shapes the digital divide conversation differently.

From the Pew Research databank:

In fact, by a 59%-to-45% margin, whites are more likely to go online using a computer on a typical day than are African Americans. But with more African Americans using mobile devices to go online the gap is closing. Fully 48% of blacks have used a mobile device at some point to access the internet, while only 28% of whites have done so. As a result, when mobile access is included, 54% of African Americans go online on the average day compared with 61% of whites; the access gap is cut in half. And growth in mobile internet access has been rapid. In 2007, only 12% of blacks used the internet on a mobile device on an average day. Now roughly three-in-ten do, an increase of 141% [Source]

Mobile Web users are online an average of three hours a day in 2010, and those people range from Midwest executives taxiing in from a redeye business flights right to urban teens readying for a flash mob.

As Philadelphia social worker Jeff Deeney writes, “The new must have item, like Air Jordans or a leather jacket once upon a time, is the smart phone. Now in the neighborhoods it’s all about the IPhone, the Blackberry, the Droid.  That’s how the kids in class know you’re gettin’ money:  you got a flashy new phone loaded with a Twitter app and monthly data plan.”

Let’s now show that that’s important to news.

Already more than a quarter of mobile Web users are reading news sites, so newspapers are taking serious stances on this new platform being one to win back readers, whom they can monetize.

As Pew’s Research goes on to say:

  • Portable: 33% of cell phone owners now access news on their cell phones.
  • Personalized: 28% of internet users have customized their home page to include news from sources and on topics that particularly interest them.

A new media ecosystem is staring us right in the face, but there’s a path yet to be climbed and no — no, really, no one — knows exactly where we’ll end up because a new technology could shake it all up in an instant.

But finally, let’s offer some obvious criticisms.

Chiefly among them is that just because you haven’t seen a bear since you got your new pet rock, it doesn’t mean your pet rock wards off bears.

The syllogism that because (1) mobile Web users are more active in following news and information and (+2) poorer, non-white communities are accessing the mobile Web means (=3) poorer, non-white communities will be more active in following news and information is a bit of a jump.

But getting on the Web is the first major hurdle advanced nations have failed to overcome. No doubt, the FCC’s national broadband plan will relate to the proliferation of the mobile Web.

We can’t know the end, but mobile will impact how we get there.