The Mobile Web: Great Promise + Growth Pains

It’s clear that the mobile web is a big growth segment these days. Proof of that is found in recent Nielsen statistics, which have charted ~34% annual growth of the U.S. mobile web audience, now numbering some 57 million visitors using a mobile device to visit web sites (as of late summer 2009).

And now, a new forecast by the Gartner research firm projects that mobile phones will overtake PCs as the most common web access devices worldwide … as early as 2013. It estimates that the total number of smartphones and/or browser-enhanced phones will be ~1.82 billion, compared to ~1.78 billion PCs by then.

Gartner is even more aggressive than Morgan Stanley’s prediction that the mobile web will outstrip the desktop web by 2015.

So, what’s the problem?

Well … consumer studies also show that web surfing using mobile phones continues to be a frustrating experience for many users. In a recent survey of ~1,000 mobile web users, web application firm Compuware/Gomez found that two out of every three mobile web users reports having problems when accessing web sites on their phones.

Because people are so used to fast broadband connections – both at home and at work – it’s only natural that their expectations for the mobile web are similarly high. To illustrate this, Gomez found that more than half of mobile phone users are willing to wait just 6 to 10 seconds for a site to load before moving on.

And what happens after they give up? Sixty percent say they’d be less likely to visit the site again. More importantly, ~40% report that they’d head over to a competing site. As for what would happen if the mobile web experience was as fast and reliable as on a PC, more than 80% of the respondents in the Gomez study claim they would access web sites more often from their phones.

For marketers, this means that to maximize their success in the mobile world, they should reformat web sites to conform to the small-form factor of handheld devices. And Gartner also notes that “context” will be the king of the hill in mobile – more than just “search” – in that it will deliver a personalized user experience. New functionalities such as Google’s “Near Me Now” are providing information on businesses, dining and other services that are in the proximity of a mobile user’s location. These and other innovations are opening up whole new dimensions to “seeking and finding” in the mobile web world.

Surprising Findings about Smartphone Apps

iPhoneWith the explosive adoption rate of Apple’s iPhone smartphone since its release a little over a year ago – more than 25 million phones to date – it couldn’t be long before researchers would start examining user behavior and study the most popular applications that are being used.

Indeed, there are already hundreds of “for free” and “for fee” applications that are available for use on smartphones.

So what are most popular iPhone apps? You’re to be forgiven if you think of music or games, because that’s certainly where most of the press hype has been. But in fact, the most popular iPhone apps are all about … the weather.

That is right. In a recent report issued by online market research and analytics firm Compete, staid and unexciting weather apps were cited by ~40% of respondents as one of the three top iPhone apps they used.

The next most popular application cited? Facebook (by ~25%). By contrast, game applications were cited as a top three-category by only ~20% of respondents, and music apps even lower still.

So much for iPhone users demonstrating cutting-edge online behavior!

In a related analysis, online analytics firm Pinch Media found that most iPhone apps aren’t setting the world on fire in terms of their popularity. The Pinch analysis found that iPhone users are quite fickle: Only ~20% ever return to a free app after downloading it. And a month later? The return rate drops to a paltry 5%. (The percentages are even lower for paid apps.)

These stats have implications for third-party advertisers on smartphone app programs. For many, it may make more sense to advertise on The Weather Channel or other less flashy but more frequently used apps than going with high-sizzle gaming applications that might be used only a handful of times before they’re replaced by the “next new thing.”