Welcome to Modern Times’ Newest Malady: “Digital Dementia.”

Digital dementia among young people: studies in South Korean, the U.S. and Germany confirmIt seems like a new “unintended consequence” of our digital age emerges every other week.  Recently it’s been a spate of warnings about the dangers of texting while driving.

And now we have reports of a condition dubbed “digital dementia” that’s supposedly plaguing teens and Millennials.

This phenomenon is being reported out of South Korea, a country that happens to have the highest rate of smartphone adoption in the world.  More than two thirds of all South Korean adults have a smartphone, and among teenagers, it’s nearly as high (~64%).

Indeed, according to the country’s Ministry of Science, smartphone adoption by South Korean teens has jumped more than 200% since 2011 when it was less than 22%.

So what is “digital dementia”?  It’s described as the deterioration in cognitive abilities that comes from an imbalanced development of brain functions.

Commenting on the use of smartphones and gaming devices among young people, “Heavy users are likely to develop the left side of their brains, leaving the right side untapped or underdeveloped,” claims Byun Gi-won, a physician at the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul.

According to Dr. Gi-won, such overuse results in symptoms that are more commonly observed in people who have psychiatric illnesses or have suffered head injuries.

The country’s Ministry of Science estimates that nearly one in five South Koreans ages 10-19 use their smartphone seven hours per day or more.  That’s up sharply from around 10% doing so just a year before.

Is the phenomenon of “digital dementia” among the young confined to South Korea or East Asia?  Manfred Spitzer, a professor of neuroscience in Germany, thinks not.  He’s the author of a book on digital dementia that was published in 2012, wherein he warned of the dangers of allowing children to spend too much time on electronic devices such as tablets, smartphones and game devices.

Dr. Manfred Spitzer, author of "Digital Dementia."
Do you recognize this face? Dr. Manfred Spitzer, author of “Digital Dementia.”

In fact, Dr. Spitzer maintains that deficits in brain development are irreversible.  His solution:  Ban digital media from German classrooms completely.

Dream on, professor.  That’s certainly not going to happen!

Likewise, we have a recent study from the University of Southern California at Los Angeles that points to increasing memory problems among people ages 18-39.  The UCLA report blames “modern lifestyles,” claiming that the many digital gadgets within easy reach of young people prevent them from developing memorization skills and other forms of focus.

On the other hand, that same UCLA study concludes that for some older patients suffering from mental decline, engaging in brain-fitness computer games like Luminosity or Posit Science’s Brain HQ have improved their language and memory skills significantly.

Considering that age-related memory decline affects as many as 40% of older adults, that UCLA finding may turn out to be as noteworthy on the positive side of the ledger as the South Korean one on the negative side about young people.

Like any other “transformational” technology, the digital revolution continues to play out in unexpected ways.  Somehow, I expect us to be hearing many more reports of this type as the years roll on.

Not that these theories of cognitive weakness don’t have their detractors.  You can read several strongly worded retorts here and here.

What do readers think?  Big news … or bunk?  Please share your thoughts here.

BlackBerry in 2013 … like Studebaker in 1965?

1965 Studebaker Commander station wagon
The end of the road: The 1965 Studebaker Commander station wagon.

BlackBerry has announced that it will finally introduce its new Z10 touchscreen smartphone model in the United States next week, in conjunction with its AT&T program.

That’s about a month after sales of the Z10 began in the United Kingdom, Canada and several other countries.

Does this signify a comeback of sorts for BlackBerry?

If it does, it will be a dramatic reversal of fortune, as the company has been on a steady downward trajectory ever since the release of the first Apple iPhone in 2007.

But speaking as the owner of a BlackBerry device, I have to admit that the company has seemed to be hopefully behind the curve for quite a few years now. And this latest, last-ditch effort is coming up against stiff competition, such as Samsung’s new Galaxy smartphone which is debuting at the very same time.

BlackBerry’s recently installed CEO, Thorsten Heins, has stated publicly that the company has to regain some of its market share in the U.S. in order to be successful.

But the news on this front doesn’t look promising at all, as corporate accounts — long the company’s bread-and-butter busines– appear to be falling away.

In February, The Home Depot reported that it was replacing all of its company-issued BlackBerry devices with iPhones.

And just last week, Yahoo announced that it will be phasing out its app for BlackBerry devices as of April 1st (yep, you got that right: April Fool’s Day).

Also, as of last September Yahoo no longer offers BlackBerry smartphone options to its own employees – just as with The Home Depot.

Rather than endorsements, these seem more like ringing indictments.

For those of us who love our BlackBerry keyboards, the company is promising that a keyboard version of the new smartphone (the Q10) will be available in the United States by this summer.

The question is, will it be too late by then?

We’ll know that answer soon.

Tablet Computer Adoption: Fast and Furious

Tablets are growing faster than smartphone adoptionThe tablet computer hasn’t been around long at all.  But it’s making a huge splash in the digital arena … and giving not only laptops but also smartphones a run for their money in the bargain.

Consider these data points as reported on recently by Mark Donovan, a senior vice president at comScore, a leading Internet cyber-analytics firm:

  • Tablet adoption is happening significantly faster than what was experienced with smartphones.
  • The majority of iPad users don’t own an iPhone or some other type of smartphone.
  • Tablet “early adopters” are equally male and female – a departure from the norm which typically finds early adopters of new digital technology being primarily young men.
  • There is very high usage of tablets for shopping, watching video, and other media consumption. That’s also a departure from what was experienced with smartphones, where it took much longer for consumers to become comfortable shopping from their smartphone devices.
  • People use tablets and smartphones differently – and at different times. For example, smartphone usage peaks during the day whereas tablets are used more in the evening.

That tablets are making big gains on laptop computers is no surprise at all, considering their lighter weight, nearly effortless portability, brighter screens, and the ease of using them in environments not conducive to a keyboard-and-mouse (like in bed).

But of the trends noted above, I think the most intriguing one pertains to tablet computer usage versus smartphones – specifically, how tablets are becoming an alternative to smartphones rather than an adjunct.

Indeed, it seems as if some people aren’t making the transition from feature phones to smartphones that everyone expected; they’re opting for tablets instead. We may see the adoption rates for smartphonesbegin to flatten out as a result.

Indeed, Adobe Systems reported in May 2012 that tablet traffic is growing at a rate ten times faster than smartphone traffic.

But if you really think about it, maybe these latest developments aren’t so surprising: Many folks have long complained about the “miniaturization” of display screens that are a necessary evil of mobile phones. Now that the tablet has come along, there’s finally an effective solution to that dilemma – and the market has responded accordingly, blowing away even the most optimistic sales forecasts for tablets.

Taking the “phone” out of “smartphone.”

SmartphonesAs more consumers migrate to the smartphone from traditional feature phones, we’re seeing a transformation of the mobile phone away from its original “tele” purpose.

That’s the conclusion of several studies by analytics firms Flurry and Wireless Intelligence.

In an analysis of smartphone users’ app activity conducted in December 2011, Flurry found the an interesting breakdown of daily activity that places mobile gaming at the top of the list:

 Playing downloaded mobile games: ~49% of daily app activity
 Interacting with Facebook and other social networks: ~30%
 Viewing mobile entertainment: ~7%
 Checking/reading news: ~6%
 Other applications: ~8%

And Wireless Intelligence found some very intriguing figures in its analysis of smartphone user activity conducted in mid-2011.

Of the average ~38 hours of time spent on smartphones per month, actual “phone calling” represented less than one-fourth of the time:

Messaging activities: ~29% of smartphone user time
 Interacting with apps: ~29%
 Voice activities: ~23%
 Web browsing: ~19%

What we’re seeing is that the original purpose of the cellphone has devolved into a position of distinctly lower importance. In time, it could well become the asterisk at the bottom of the page.

And this is happening inside the span of 15 years.

To borrow a phrase from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, you’d be hard-pressed to cite another device that has so “fundamentally and profoundly” changed its functionality and user purpose over such a short amount of time.

It makes one wonder what the next 15 years will bring …

Are Mobile Communications Taking Over the World?

Mobile communications taking over the worldHow hot is mobile communications these days? Extremely, according to Internet marketing über-specialist Aaron Goldman, who recently cited a number of information factoids to back up his contention:

 There will be ~5 billion mobile devices in use by 2012. That’s the equivalent of ~70% of the world’s entire population.

 Penetration of smartphones has now reached ~38% in the United States … and higher in Europe and Asia.

 The average smartphone user in the U.S. and U.K. has 23 mobile apps on his or her phone. (In Japan, it’s even higher at 45 apps.)

 Four out of five smartphone users use their phone to shop or research purchases while they’re in the store.

 Even more interestingly, ~43% of mobile Internet usage actually happens at home. Evidently, the desktop being mere steps away isn’t as convenient as whipping out the phone to get the needed information..

 Mobile makes up ~20% of all searches on Yahoo, which translates into ~528 million Yahoo searches on mobile devices every month. (Google isn’t far behind, with ~15% of its searches on mobile.)

 Mobile is clearly making strides in the local market; just under 30% of all mobile search queries are ones with “local intent.” For desktops and laptop PCs, only about half of that proportion are “local.”

And Goldman has another interesting stat to share: Nearly 40% of smartphone users access the Internet while using the lavatory.

Now, when Internet surfing takes over from bathroom reading … that’s proof above all else that mobile has definitely arrived!

What’s the Very Latest with Consumers and How They’re Using QR Codes?

Scanning a QR code with a smartphoneI’ve written before about QR (quick response) codes and how they’re viewed as a marketer’s dream.

What can be better than the ability for consumers to point-and-click their smartphones for instant access to product details, a coupon or other information … without them having to type in a web address?

But it’s been observed that U.S. consumers are a bit more reticent to use them compared to their Japanese counterparts (where QR codes got their start).

And a July 2011 survey of ~500 adult social media users conducted by research firm Lab42 (Chicago, IL) found that nearly 60% of the respondents were not familiar with QR codes. Furthermore, only ~13% of the respondents were able to use a QR code when prompted to do so in the research, suggesting that many of those saying they were familiar with QR codes may never have actually used them — or maybe only experimented with them once or twice.

But now that some time has elapsed since QR codes have made their debut in America, we have access to field research to help us understand how U.S. consumers are actually interacting with them.

The data comes in the form of a new MobiLens study by comScore, which has found that ~14 million mobile users in the U.S. scanned a QR code on their “smart” mobile device at least once during June 2011.

That figure represents ~6% of the total mobile audience over the age of 13. Not a big percentage, but considering that smartphones still represent only a minority of all mobile phones in circulation (just shy of 40%), it shows that use of QR codes is happening to some degree.

And what are the demographic characteristics of QR code users? According to comScore, they’re more likely to be male (~61% of the code scanning audience) … they definitely skew younger (~53% are between the ages of 18 and 34) … and they’re more likely to be upper-income folks (~36% have household incomes of $100,000+).

What are the most popular sources of scanned QR codes? The study shows that this skews more toward “traditional” media: magazines and newspapers:

 Printed magazines or newspapers: ~49% of the QR code audience
 Product packaging: ~35%
 Websites on a PC: ~27%
 Posters, flyers or kiosks: ~24%
 Business cards or sales brochures: ~13%
 Storefronts: ~13%
 Television: ~12%

I got a chuckle out of the fact that QR codes published on websites receive so many scans … it would seem to me that if someone is already sitting at a desktop or laptop computer, what’s the point of scanning a QR code into a smartphone? But I’m sure people have their reasons.

And where are people situated when they’re scanning a QR code? To hear many marketers tell it, they’re most excited about placing QR codes on billboards or in other public paces. But comScore has found out that most people are scanning QR codes not while “out and about” … but when sitting at home:

 Scanning QR codes at home: ~58% of the QR code audience
 … At a retail store: ~39%
 … At the grocery store: ~25%
 … At work: ~20%
 … Outside, or when using public transit: ~13%
 … In a restaurant: ~8%

If you’re interested in reviewing additional findings from the comScore MobiLens study, you can find them here. Because of the “newness and novelty” of QR codes in the American market, not doubt comScore will be returning to this research topic regularly to chart how consumer behaviors continue to evolve over time.

Microsoft’s “next of Kin”? None, evidently.

Microsoft Kin logoPeople say that today’s digital world has dramatically shortened the business and product development cycle. But even so, the amount of time it took for Microsoft to pull its Kin social phone off the market – a mere six weeks after its launch – has to be a record, or close to one.

For those who missed this eye-blink of a product introduction, the Kin was supposed to be a major component in Microsoft’s efforts to become a player in the mobile market, in response to the success of Apple’s iPod and iPhone, as well as a variety of new smartphones that are powered by Google’s Android software.

The New York Times has reported that this latest development “is the latest sign of disarray for Microsoft’s recently reorganized consumer products unit.”

Amazingly, for a product that was in development for several years and reportedly represented a resource investment of well over $1 million, Microsoft sold only a relative handful of units during the Kin’s star-crossed six-week introduction. Reports of sales volume vary – from a few thousand units on the upper end to as few as 500 on the low end. Either way, it’s a stunning defeat for a company that up until a short time ago, seemed well on its way to being an important player in the field.

What was Kin’s problem? In a nutshell, consumers didn’t like the product nor the way it was being sold. Verizon, Microsoft’s service provider partner, priced Kin service agreements like a smartphone – at ~$70 per month when combined with the mandated voice plans. But many people felt that the platform was mediocre and didn’t possess anything near the functionality of a smartphone. “A feature phone, not a smartphone,” was the common complaint.

Some people are wondering if there’s a bigger story afoot: whether or not Microsoft is still committed to its Windows Phone 7 platform. It’s fallen so far behind iPhone and Android, what are its chances of success now?

And that’s not all the bad news for Microsoft on the consumer side of the business. Gizmodo is reporting that Microsoft has also cancelled a project to develop its Courier tablet computer that would have competed with the iPad.

This is just the latest in a string of Microsoft consumer initiatives that have basically fallen flat – Money, Encarta, and now the Kin and Courier.

Once, Microsoft would have hung in there for the long haul. It doesn’t seem so today.

Multimedia Centers: Migrating From the Family Room to the Garage

Automobile multimedia centersConverseon’s Craig Daitch, writing in Advertising Age magazine, is claiming that Ford Motor could be the next media company.

What does that mean?

It means this: Today, the most well-equipped media centers may well be the ones found in your car. What’s being featured in car showrooms are vehicles that contain everything from portals for laptops to smartphone-enabled screens … satellite-enabled geo-positioning systems … high-definition and/or satellite radio … even televisions.

The reality is, the home is no longer the exclusive domain of all of these collective media. The automobile is a multimedia hub as well, which means that any medium that was once reserved for in-home consumption can now be experienced in cars – on the go.

What are the implications for marketers? For one thing, merchants are now closer than ever to closing the gap between in-store and out-of-store marketing. Now, marketing messages can travel along with the target audience … right into the store parking lot. Messages reach their targets that much more effectively when cars are taking them directly to the point of purchase.

Sure, outdoor billboards and broadcast radio have played a role similar to this in the past, but never to the same degree as delivering an electronic coupon or alerting the consumer based on locational tracking.

Up to now, mobile media were limited to devices such as cellphones that could be unplugged and personally ported by users to different locations. Going forward, it’s the plugs that are mobile … and essentially any medium is now a mobile medium when it resides in a car.

It’s an intriguing twist that has vast implications on tactical marketing as we look to the future.

Smartphones surge … and phone apps follow right behind.

Smartphones surge in the marketplace ... phone apps right behind them.Media survey firm Nielsen is reporting that as of the end of 2009, about one in five wireless subscribers in the U.S. owned a smartphone. That’s up significantly from the ~14% who owned them at the end of 2008, and adoption is only expected to accelerate in the coming months.

So what’s going on with phone apps, now that a larger chunk of the population is able to download and use them? Nielsen is seeing about 15% of mobile subscribers downloading at least one app in a 30-day period.

Perhaps not surprisingly, those who own iPhones are more apt to download apps compared to people who own Android phones, Palms or BlackBerrys. Far more apps have been developed for the iPhone, although Android is feverishly trying to catch up.

Which apps are most popular? It goes without saying that games – free and paid – are quite popular. But the four most popular apps are Facebook, Google Maps, the Weather Channel and Pandora.

And where are the news apps in all this? Not even on the radar screen, it turns out.

… Seems people are getting more than enough news blasted out to them 24/7/365 without needing to sign up for a special app to deliver more of it — thank you very much.

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.