Friday, May 27, 2011

Mobile Phones in China: A Main Gateway to the Internet

In a recent post I wrote about the immense variety of mobile phones available in China and shared some examples of the selection that can be found in stores in Zhaotong, Yunnan.

Here are some mobiles phones actually being used by one college couple in Zhaotong:

Nokia and Sunlight Mobile Phones

One had a Nokia and the other had a Sunlight, one of the many Chinese brands of mobile phones.

What most caught my attention about this couple wasn't their choice of mobile phones but how they used them.  Despite neither of them having advanced phones by today's standards, they primarily accessed the Internet through their phones.

College Dormitory Room
Going to an internet cafe was seen as an unnecessary expense and inconvenience.  Purchasing a computer was definitely out of the question, neither of their families could afford one.  Even if there had been money available they would have faced the problems that there was no wired Internet access in their college dormitory rooms and that electricity wasn't available at all times.

Instead, both students took advantage of what they considered to be a cheap plan that enabled them to regularly access the Internet from their phones.

If you want to guess the one piece of technology owned by any college student in China, a mobile phone is a safe choice.  It was clear the couple used their phones to access the Internet not mainly because they were mobile phones but instead because the phones were a relatively cheap piece of technology which fulfilled a variety of other needs as well (such as phone calls and text messaging).

Especially in China, "mobile" isn't always about mobility.

It was also fascinating to see how they used their mobile phones for a variety of purposes, whether it was browsing news sites or interacting on social networking sites.  They were not inhibited to complete what could be considered complex tasks due to using relatively basic mobile devices.

These two students certainly aren't alone in China in how they use their phones.  I've observed that for many Chinese a mobile phone is their primary gateway to the Internet.  Surveys conducted by The Nielsen Company during the past year have found similar results:
"For many people in China, the mobile Web is the only one they need. When they think of the World Wide Web, they don’t think of tethering themselves to a desktop PC and the accessories of mice, keyboards, mouse pads, printers and monitors.  Not only don’t many homes in China have (or need) landlines for voice communications, they also don’t require hardwired Internet access for their fix of the Web.  And with mobile phones, everything they needs is in the palm of their hands.

In a short amount of time, mobile consumers in China have surpassed their American counterparts when it comes to using the devices to access the Internet (38% of Chinese mobile subscribers compared to 27% of American mobile subscribers), despite less advanced networks."
Furthermore, Nielsen'a research shows that mobile internet use in China is particularly pronounced in youth:
"Youth in China and the US lead the way among young mobile subscribers who use advanced data. Eighty-four percent of Chinese youth use their phones beyond voice and text compared to 47 percent of Chinese adults. Eighty-three percent of US youth use advanced data, 32 percent higher than US adults.

At 70 percent, young Chinese advanced data users have a significantly higher mobile internet usage rate than the rest of the world."
graphing indicating Chinese youth use the mobile internet more than American youth

The ramifications of all the above for companies with online services is readily apparent.  If they desire to reach a broad range of Chinese youth it could be critical for the design of the services to take into account that for many youth a mobile phone will be the typical device used to access the Internet, even when mobility is not a primary concern and the phone is relatively limited.

From a research perspective, this is why at times I don't want to be always using the latest and greatest mobile phone, even though I work in the technology industry.  It helps me better appreciate the experiences of many of the consumers I'm trying to understand and reach.


  1. Based on your recent Android post, I wonder what the smart phone vs. feature phone use is.

    In the "lost post" I'm pretty sure there weren't any Blackberrys --- when I saw it. (I don't know how many Isidor devotees are also Blackberry fanboys. Probably just me.)

    Are Blackberry, Android and (oh, well) iPhone gaining traction/well established in China?

    If I remember and/or understand it right, a few years ago there was an issue a few years ago with the security of the Blackberry in India. My understanding was that the BB was "too secure" for the Indian government. The Indian government was worried that encryption on the BB was so high that they couldn't monitor email and SMS.

    Has this been an issue in China? Is it just a Blackberry issue?

  2. The first report I link to in the piece says 71% of youth 15-24 in China have a feature phone and 29% have a smartphone. I'd like to know more about their whether the figures are intended to be truly representative of all of China or just particular regions.

    I don't recall seeing any BlackBerry's in Zhaotong but they definitely exist in China. In fact, see my post here. The student with the BlackBerry was quite proud of it.

    The impact of Android, iPhone, and Blackberry in China is a bigger question to address. In short, they have all made inroads in the China market in different ways and to different degrees. I may try to tackle some of that in a later post.

    Blackberry appears to provide China an ability to monitor "encrypted" data. See this post on Forbes for more.