A few short years ago, back when spotting an iPad in public was still a novelty, some tech prognosticators were boldly predicting that it wouldn’t be long before use of the mobile web surpassed Internet usage through computers.
It was a little hard to imagine.
It hasn’t happened in Canada yet — it’s still not even close — but it no longer seems that implausible.
Facebook recently announced that its users now connect to the social network more on phones and tablets than they do with desktop and laptop computers.
BBC News also reported this summer that for the first time ever, it saw mobile traffic exceed computer traffic for some of its news coverage, including stories on the death of Canadian actor Cory Monteith.
Experts’ best guesses suggest it’ll still take years before mobile is fully neck and neck with computer usage when it comes to overall Internet consumption — particularly in North America — but given how quickly tablets and smartphones have been adopted, it could happen sooner than expected.
“It seems pretty inevitable if you look out two, three, four years that the dominant way of connecting to the Internet, connecting to information, connecting to your friends, is going to be through mobile, that’s very much a global trend,” said Cory Ondrejka, Facebook’s vice president of mobile engineering.
“I think there are products like Facebook where it’s a much more natural fit to be using on mobile, so we’re very much a leading edge on this transition to mobile because it’s a more natural use case. Not every product in the world has that same dynamic, there are some products that may make more sense on a desktop so they’re going to have a longer transition to mobile.”
According to the website StatCounter, mobile represented just 0.67 per cent of global Internet traffic in January 2009 but grew to 1.5 per cent a year later, 4.3 per cent by the beginning of 2011 and nearly doubled in each of the following two years. It now stands at about 18 per cent. The numbers are higher in Africa and Asia but lower in North America, with only 11 per cent of overall Internet traffic in Canada linked to mobile devices.
The mobile trend has taken off quicker in emerging markets where computers are less commonly found in homes, said Ondrejka.
“There are billions of people over the next three or four years that their first connection to the Internet is going to be through mobile devices,” he said.
“If you think about most of the people we talk to every day, they got to know the Internet through a laptop or desktop machine and then started using mobile browsers. There’s a huge number of people who have never seen the Internet and their first experience with that is going to be on the phone.”
Eric Morris, Google Canada’s head of mobile advertising, said there are a few “pockets” of mobile usage that are catching up to or even surpassing computer usage in Canada.
“We see almost as many restaurant searches on mobile as you do on desktop ... There are actually more queries for restaurants on Valentine’s Day on mobile than on desktop, people doing things last minute on the go, because they’re desperate for that information,” said Morris.
“Even just two years ago mobile Internet usage was seen as almost a hobby, it was something for people who could afford expensive phones and expensive data plans, it was a luxury for them — luxury in terms of cost, a luxury in terms of how often they used it.
“And now what we’ve seen is mobile Internet consumption has become more mainstream and for some people that’s the first place they use the Internet when they wake up — they’re checking Facebook, they’re checking Twitter, they’re checking e-mail, they’re checking their feeds — and it’s the last thing they look at before going to bed. That’s a fundamental shift in consumer behaviour.”
Even when people have access to a computer at home they’re increasingly choosing to use a mobile device instead on their WiFi network, said Dave Caputo, president of the computer network company Sandvine. He noted that about 20 per cent of North American Internet traffic is linked to mobile devices on WiFi.
“I think it’s amazing that people are consuming a big chunk of content on their mobile devices over their home WiFi network, a phenomenon we call home roaming,” said Caputo.
But if you’re counting megabytes and gigabytes — instead of time spent on each platform — desktop and laptop computer usage still comes out way ahead.
In North America, the average monthly Internet usage per customer is about 44 gigabytes on computers and only 390 megabytes on mobile, according to Sandvine’s research.
But the popularity of video streaming at home — which quickly gobbles through gigabytes of data — may be skewing the spread between computer and mobile usage.
Caputo said Sandvine is just now starting to see consumers use their mobile devices for video streaming in a significant way.
“If you think of the quality of the screens, the better battery life, the better accessibility to long-form video content, it’s really becoming a reality on mobile networks,” said Caputo.
The growth of mobile is part of another trend, said Morris: constant connectivity.
“I think a lot of people are focusing on, ‘has mobile surpassed desktop, is it more important?’ I think the way we look at it at Google is people are just spending more time online in general,” Morris said.
“Whereas in the past the only time you could enjoy the Internet was when you were at your desk, in your office or a classroom, now you can enjoy the Internet wherever you are, you have it in your pocket and you’re connected all the time.
“You used to have to go online, now you are online.”