Tomi Ahonen’s Favorite Numbers: 6 Questions About the Mobile Industry

Tomi Ahonen is a mobile industry veteran and author regarded as “the father of several of the industry’s most used theories, tools and concepts, and a founding member of several industry groups.” Following a stint as Global Head of Nokia’s 3G Business Consulting division, he has spent the past 15 years running his own consultancy service and speaking at conferences and industry events around the world. This month, we got the chance to discuss his extensive research on the mobile industry, and what he thinks will happen next.

Verto Analytics (VA): Please introduce yourself: who are you, and what do you do?

Tomi Ahonen (TA): I’m a mobile industry author, analyst, and consultant. I’ve just celebrated 15 years running my own business as an independent consultant. Before that, I set up Nokia’s consulting department and previously, I worked in telecoms at various jobs with the telcos in Finland and earlier in the internet business in the U.S. I’m a Finn, currently living in Hong Kong.

VA: You’ve been following the mobile industry for 15+ years and have cultivated an incredible amount of insight and data along the way. From your point of view, what has been the most surprising phenomenon to happen around mobile and digital, that you did not see coming?

TA: Long term, it’s most definitely social media. I was re-reading my first book, (2002), when it had its 10 year anniversary and noticed that it only had two pages that even mentioned social media (that term did not exist at the time, but I was referencing ‘community’-oriented services like dating and chat). By my second book, m-Profits: Making Money from 3G Services (2002), I included half a chapter on ‘community’ types of services and by the time I published my fourth book, I dedicated a whole book to that topic: Communities Dominate Brands came out in 2005. Yet every time I looked at it, the power of social media still surprised me and exceeded my wildest imagination.

Back in 2001, when I left Nokia’s consulting department to start my own, I already believed in the potential of mobile payments, mobile advertising, and mobile gaming to have an enormous impact on our lives. But ‘social media’ is the thing that has surprised me one year after the next, and from one book to the next. And it hasn’t stopped. Just consider the past year: we saw the amazing sudden success of Pokémon GO much of its power came from the social media sharing aspect of the game. And then consider the simple role that SMS text messaging still plays today in empowering huge societal reactions, such as the how the Turkish military coup ended after President Erdoğan invited all citizens, via SMS messages, to come out and stop the military takeover of his government. Social media has been, and continues to be, the biggest surprise that I did not see coming. And even though I’ve written extensively about it (my blog is entitled Communities Dominate Brands), I still am regularly amazed at the new ways it still changes everything in life.

VA: What was the thing you predicted correctly, despite the market questioning your initial idea?

TA: There are several examples, but probably the most relevant one is right now is the concept of mobile internet. Since my first book in 2002, I’ve predicted that the internet would go mobile, that more people would use the internet on mobile than on PCs, and that the web, as opposed to apps, would be the way to reach most mobile users. This led to huge arguments with most experts (but not all; there were a few brave souls who stood on the side of mobile even back then) who insisted that desktop or PC-based internet would become what mobile internet would have to do. More recently, after Apple introduced its App Store (by the way, that’s not anywhere near the first app store for smartphones, just so your readers know) there were a new bunch of ‘experts’ who then felt that apps were the future for mobile.

I kept saying mobile internet. I said mobile internet back when the only way we could experience it in most countries and networks was WAP, and mobile internet is what I said when HTML started to gain prominence on mobile phones even before Apple launched its own App Store. And mobile web is what I’m saying today, when even most app fanatics have started to accept that apps only are a good platform for gaming and some social media uses, and that most mobile services will be delivered via HTML instead. Mobile app usage numbers are distorted by the heavy usage of those playing games, but obviously not everybody bothers to play games and even gamers have plenty of other things to do on their phones that don’t require apps. Nearly half of American smartphone users never load a single app and a third of people who own a mobile phone do not own smartphone; these consumers still use the mobile internet. Today, the numbers overwhelmingly support ‘my side’ of the argument but just two or three years ago, there were heated arguments from the ‘app fanatics’ side.

VA: When you meet customers and executives in the industry, which data point, or observation, is most striking today? What really makes people wonder “Can that be true?”

TA: “Most striking” depends a lot on the individual audience I talk to. Telecoms people often are stunned by how quickly the mobile industry seems to have evolved. For example, for years, the telecoms industry has known that the mobile industry leads in things like unit sales, penetration, and global reach rates compared to the television and PC industries. But they base these assumptions on old statistics that showed these industries roughly in parity with each other. Instead, the mobile industry is now 3 times larger than TV industry globally in terms of revenue.

According to research I published in the latest Tomi Ahonen Almanac, only 10% of today’s internet users today do not use a mobile, while 50% of internet users today don’t have a PC (the rest use both a PC and mobile). These shifts are happening so quickly that telecoms execs tend to be stunned by how quickly the mobile industry has surged.

On the non-telecoms side, mobile usage numbers are usually what totally blows away  the audience. For example, we look at a smartphone 221 times per day. That is the kind of information that bankers, advertisers, media people tend to be surprised by and it often really shakes them to the core. In a similar vein, a few years ago, I found that the retail industry was struck by the fact that half of their consumers had been in a store but walked out because they found and decided to purchase an item on their phone instead. As your readers probably know, retail is currently the fastest sector to adopt mobile and the sector is racking up many global innovations and awards as major players learn the real powers of mobile.

VA: The online and offline worlds are quickly converging – eg., through the rise of mobile payments, location based advertising, retail vouchers, beacon based targeting, connected home. Who do you think will ultimately gain control over this convergence? Will it be device vendors like Samsung, OS vendors like Google or Apple, credit card companies like AMEX or VISA, carriers like Verizon or Singtel, or internet companies like Facebook? What is the power battle going to look like?

TA: I wish I knew. I track convergence professionally and report on it; my recent book, Digital Korea, was all about convergence. I have found 17 industries that I am certain will become fully absorbed into the converged digital industry cluster; by 2030, it will be the largest industry on the planet. You mentioned several players in that race. Some seem to have a good grasp of what is going on, like Google, Apple, and Samsung. Others, like Facebook, had a very troubled path to mobile but they did get there eventually and now are reaping the benefits (compared to Yahoo or Microsoft).

Telecoms operators have a huge advantage, but they are notoriously averse to experimentation and slow to react (as is the banking and credit card sector). There are individual examples of telcos that have done remarkably well: the domestic performance of Japan’s NTT DoCoMo or the international performance of its rival Softbank are two good examples. But the telcos often seem to squander chances outside of their core business and have not been able to leap into other areas in the ways that Google has (a web portal company became the largest ad platform and largest mapping company) or Apple (a PC maker became the biggest music store, then became second biggest smartphone maker). The beauty of mobile (and digital, which today is nearly synonymous with mobile because few of its large digital industry players can remain relevant without a big mobile play) is that it changes so fast: the market leaders of the recent past can rapidly become mere footnotes notes in history. Just look at Motorola, and consider Nokia’s struggles as it attempts to recuperate from past blunders.

VA: What do you think is the most telling/disruptive graphic of the year and why?

TA: Graphic of the year award, eh? I do fall in love with numbers easily and have favorite statistics that change almost weekly. And while they often are presented in graphics, I do not necessarily even notice the graphical illustration; I notice the number instead. So let me respond in a roundabout way: it’s not my favorite graphic per se, but my current favorite statistic is the 76 number that came out in July of 2016. Dscout measured the number of separate daily touch-screen sessions on the average smartphone. It’s 76 per day. To note, we perform actions on a phone that do not involve the touch screen, like plugging a phone into a power outlet, or glancing at the screen to check the time, or to see who is calling. And during a given session, we may touch the screen multiple times. But the average consumer has 76 separate touch-screen related activities per day. This is my current favorite statistic.

In my seminars, I make a point of explaining that DScout’s 76 sessions figure is consistent with Apple’s statistic that the average iPhone is unlocked 80 times per day; and both are consistent with the earlier statistic that we look at our smartphones 221 times per day. For many activities, we look at our phone a couple of times per session; while on a phone call, we look at the phone when we dial, then we bring the phone to our ear to talk; then we look at the phone a second time to disconnect from the call. Some activities obviously take more than one glance, so 76 touch-screen sessions per day, or 80 screen unlocks per day are both consistent with the average person looking at the smartphone 221 times per day.

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