The mobile data services market is on an unprecedented roll. For the first time, wireless data revenue in the U.S. passed $10 billion in Q1 2009. Wireless data revenue in the U.S. itself maybe $42 billion by 2009 as per the respected analyst — Chetan Sharma who has provided details in his market update. The U.S. is now is the largest mobile data market, ahead of Japan and China. Verizon’s data revenues are close to $4 billion, just shy of NTT DoCoMo’s. The top four U.S. carriers figure among the top 10 global operators by way of mobile data service revenues.
I was curious to find out what could have led to the phenomenal surge. While there could be a few factors, in my view the single largest contributor has been the growth of social media. Let me explain:
As more and more people sign on to social networking platforms like Facebook, there is a compelling desire to share and be part of the communication. This naturally implies that more people are signing up for the mobile data plans which are far more profitable for operators. The key catalyst that contributes both to the social media and to the operator’s profit pool happens to be the ubiquitous mobile phone.
A simple, easy to use browser and a good camera on the phone is all that is needed. When the smart phone was invented, I bet no one saw this as a potential application. The iPhone showed what is possible and soon a variety of devices has made access to social media quite easy.
Now, mobile operators for a long time have tried to offer a variety of applications, but barring a few none took off. This only goes to show that managing a network and managing a application portfolio calls for different competencies. And suddenly when one was least expecting, there’s a big surge in mobile data services.
INQ Mobile — owned by Hutchinson Whampoa has launched a Facebook phone. In Hong Kong, where the INQ1 launched back in March, nearly 50 percent of its owners regularly use data services on a level that is four times higher than the typical 3G user base. Facebook usage is also 3-4 times higher than the average on other 3G devices on the 3 Hong Kong network, the company said. Soon we may have a Twitter phone as well.
So, we are back to where it all started: Carriers have become dumb pipes and the innovation is happening around the ends of the pipes — at the device level and at the application level.
So, like I normally say about innovation, the unintended effects of an innovation caused by seemingly disparate tributaries often causes a flood in an area that we least expected to happen.