“Things That Compute”

Part of a small series of articles I wrote for a client, posted here early 2015 but back-dated to the original dates.

Anyone who’s recently sat down on a bus or subway car and looked around knows that smartphones are now in nearly every hand. A typical row of people will often go like this: phone, phone, nothing, phone, book, phone, phone, phone, newspaper, phone, phone.

Two aspects of this rise are of particular interest. First is the fact that we still call them phones but they are actually computers—handheld-pocket-carried computers. The second, related, aspect is that although statistics will often refer to phones (and tablets) as “mobile,” it would be more accurate to call them “personal” or “intimate.” They aren’t only used for seconds at a time on the go but pretty much everywhere, in every kind of setting and time constraint. Desktops and laptops are still often referred to as PCs for Personal Computer but the more accurate term might be Home or Office Computer (also used). The truly personal—and more widely distributed—computing experience is the handheld phone or tablet.

To understand what this represents, let’s look at a few recent pieces of information: first, an article in The Atlantic Sit Back, Relax, and Read That Long Story—on Your Phone, which looks into some telling numbers concerning the habits of readers of long form articles on Buzzfeed:

  • There were millions of hits on a 6000 word story, [Why I Bought a House in Detroit for $500].
  • 47% of readers of that article were on mobile.
  • Tablet readers of the story spent an average of 12 minutes reading and phone readers, 25 minutes.
  • 50% of Buzzfeed readers are on mobile.

Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti (founder and CEO) and Ben Smith (editor-in-chief) go on to talk about “immersive scroll,” “constant companionship”  and the single tasking nature of phones which typically display one thing onscreen at a time.

For the majority of people, recent smartphones also feature the best screens they own and have ever owned. Actual paper and e-ink e-readers might be a better experience but just like “the best camera is the one you carry with you”, the best reading experience is the one you carry with you and right now, this is the smartphone or the truly personal computer.

Although statistics vary, most studies and reports point to a rise in the time we spend on our smartphone doing things other than talking.

The surge in digital consumption has predictably been driven by mobile. U.S. adults now spend an average of two hours and 21 minutes per day using their mobile devices for activities other than phone calls, up 46 minutes from last year. —U.S. Adults Now Spending More Time on Digital Devices Than Watching TV

Smartphones as computing devices

If smartphones and tablets are considered computers, in Q4 2013 Apple sold more computers than the whole of the PC industry:

Smartphones are exploding

Smartphone sales vs PC sales

This is a pretty good illustration of the scale of mobile: Apple limits itself only to the high end of the mobile market but still sells more units than the whole PC industry. —Benedict Evans, mobile analyst at Andreessen Horowitz

Obviously, this is quite a loaded comparison: why compare one company to a whole industry? Why not then take into account the other computing devices those industry manufacturers  also make? The point is not to have a precise or perfectly representative illustration but, as the quote above mentions, to give an idea of the scale of mobile.

It’s also another indication of the changed and quickly evolving landscape concerning hardware. For example, a once dominant player like Microsoft has crashed from 95% of computing devices to a sub 25% market share, as shown by the same Benedict Evans in his excellent presentation Mobile is eating the world, autumn 2013 edition (see slide 16).

Note that on that slide he’s talking about “connected device sales.” Right now that’s roughly equivalent to the computing devices we’ve been referring to but very quickly, within that framing, all internet enabled Arduino and Raspberry Pi computers will count and there are many equivalently powered devices for various applications running bare bone Android. Smart watches are not that far away, and they might come from different or new players which will again broaden the variety of computing devices. Measurement widgets like the Fitbit, Up or Nike+ will also all become smarter and raise those numbers ever higher.

In a few years, those devices will have the same computing power that an iPhone 5s now has (which itself already has the same power as your computer from 2007). Where will Microsoft be? Even Apple? Windows’ 95% share a few years back is now irrelevant and the current Apple dominance (or Android surge) could fade away just as quickly.

Facebook and WhatsApp

Another indication of the prominence of mobile are Facebook’s revenues of $2.59 billion (US) in Q4 2013 mobile advertising accounted for 53% of Facebook’s revenues of $2.59 billion (US). Over a year ago, the company famously bought Instagram for $1 billion, already a clear indicator of its seriousness concerning mobile. Just this past February, Facebook then spent a resounding $19 billion (US) on WhatsApp, a chat application which also sees a lot of photo sharing.

The sale price caused quite a stir and left many analysts trying to find a logic to the purchase. Aswath Damodaran had quite an interesting look at the investor/value view and at the trader (pricing) view, while a number of people tried to make sense of the amount using the price per user, a common metric for websites and apps. Another way of looking at it is as territory: Zuckerberg is blocking off areas in mobile so that others can’t move in. He’s edging his bets against the next Facebook. The fluidity of using and of switching between social networks on mobile is quite different than on the web. Let me quote Benedict Evans one last time here:

  • Smartphone apps can access your address book, bypassing the need to rebuild your social graph on a new service.
  • They can access your photo library, whereas uploading photos to different websites is a pain.
  • They can use push notifications instead of relying on emails and on people bothering to check multiple websites.
  • Crucially, they all get an icon on the home screen.

So in conclusion, mobile is truly personal, more than or at least in addition to being an on-the-go. It constitutes just the first post-PC wave in a multiplication of formats where a large variety of devices start incorporating computing power. Mobile apps change the game in terms of social networks, so much that “defensive moves” seem to be worth billions to incumbents. Pay attention not only to mobile but also to The Internet of Things, another growing field also benefiting from and changing through the multiplication of “things that compute.”