iPhone, iPad, mobile Internet: Can we see the future?

As I follow the continuing discussion about the so-called death of Flash, the changes HTML5 will certainly bring, and what lies ahead for journalism, I find myself asking these questions:

  • Of all U.S. Internet users, what percentage will be carrying an iPad two or three years from now? (Note I said carrying, not merely owning.)
  • Of all mobile phone users in the world, what percentage have an iPhone today?
  • What do people under age 30 use the mobile Internet for, most of the time? And how will that change in two or three years?

So far, I’m not planning to buy an iPad, because I don’t envision myself carrying it around. I can’t leave my mobile phone (an iPhone, in fact) at home. In cases when I want to have more Internet with me than the phone makes convenient, usually I will also need to do a fair amount of writing. For anything more than e-mails and Twitter, I want a physical keyboard. (Yes, I’m sure I could plug a keyboard into the iPad. But then that’s two pieces instead of one.)

I’m talking about both away-from-home travel and day-to-day activities. Like most Americans, I do not commute to the office on a bus or train, so that’s not reading or Web-browsing time for me. I fly often, and I carry printed reading material for takeoff and landing. When electronic devices are permitted, most of the time I need to be typing (the keyboard again). Of course, I also listen to music.

As for the iPhone, I use it all day long for e-mail and Twitter, except when I’m physically in front of a computer. When I travel, I depend on Google Maps for city navigation, TripIt for flight updates, and Yelp for finding restaurants. My news and information uses of the mobile Internet are driven almost entirely by Twitter (for news) and Google (for looking things up). I use weather and foreign currency information frequently (apps).

I’m not claiming that I am the typical user of the mobile Internet. (For one thing, I hardly ever look at Facebook.) Teens and young adults spend a huge amount of time on social networking sites, as we all know, but they are mostly unimpressed by Twitter (see the Pew research from February 2010). Their needs and interests are different from mine.

Our survey of teens also tracked some core internet activities by those ages 12-17 and found:

  • 62% of online teens get news about current events and politics online.
  • 48% of wired teens have bought things online like books, clothing or music, up from 31% who had done so in 2000 when we first asked about this.
  • 31% of online teens get health, dieting or physical fitness information from the internet. And 17% of online teens report they use the internet to gather information about health topics that are hard to discuss with others such as drug use and sexual health topics.

Source: Pew Research

Being in a university environment, I’ve observed that the number of students carrying laptop computers has increased to a very large degree in the past two to three years. Now we see them everywhere. It’s not unusual to see a table of six kids in the food court with six laptops open on the table.

Tiny netbooks are noticeable but far from dominant. Apple MacBooks are quite common, but probably not up to 50 percent (yet).

Students need to write. They need to complete assignments. So their reliance on laptop computers is hardly surprising. But think about this: They are also developing a habit, carrying the computer everywhere, flipping it open whenever they have a spare minute, connecting to the campus wi-fi.

How will this habit evolve when they leave the university?

People who are tied to a desk at work have one set of habits. Business road warriors, spending hundreds of hours in airports, have a different set of habits. Young people have different habits in part because they are young and have a particular set of social relationships — but they are also students, whether in high school or college.

When they stop being students, will they carry any device other than the phone?

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