A study released this week by Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and research firm Ipsos quantified what devices costumers across five key global markets are currently using. Not surprisingly, the numbers show that smartphone ownership is on the rise. What caught some analysts off guard was the finding that in each of the countries polled, use of mobile phones had edged out use of personal computers in 2011.
Titled “Mobile Internet & Smartphone Adoption,” the study, whose polling was done in October, covered the U.S., the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Japan. Among the nine classifications of devices considered, there were significant variations in the adoption of different categories from country to country, showing that there are still regional and cultural preferences for certain devices. For example, during the polling, 10% of respondents in the U.S. said they use an e-reader, compared to only 2% in Japan.
In the U.S., handheld gaming devices such as the Nintendo 3DS (PINK:NTDOY) were used by 13% of respondents, while in Japan these gadgets are far more popular, and 38% of respondents said they use them. What was constant across all five countries, however, was the popularity of mobile phones versus PCs (laptops, notebooks and desktop computers) – PC use, it turns out, has been surpassed. In the U.S., 76% of respondents report using a mobile phone whereas 68% said they use a laptop or desktop PC.
Key frames of reference
Before we jump to conclusions, two things about this study need to be clarified.
First, the term mobile phone covers both “feature phones” and “smartphones,” two different device categories. Smartphones are the iPhones, BlackBerries, and Android devices that are capable of running apps, while feature phones are more-basic cell phones with some additional capabilities, such as a camera, a Web browser, or GPS. Feature phone use exceeds smartphone use in most markets, but the study showed an ongoing shift during the year, with smartphone use poised to take the lead in the U.S., Japan, and France (the devices are already more popular in the UK).
The second point to note is that the study focused specifically on privately held devices, not on mobile phones, computers, or other electronics provided by employers.
The takeaways from this study for those who invest in technology companies? It has been predicted for years, but hard data now confirms the fact that we are entering a post-PC era. Personal computers and basic cell phones are not going to disappear, but consumers are increasingly turning to the smartphone as their go-to device for everything from communications to playing games, listening to music and surfing the net.
Companies such as Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Samsung (PINK:SSNLF) that offer premium PCs along with market-leading smartphones and increasingly popular tablets are the future. Companies that are focused almost exclusively on PCs, such as Dell (NASDAQ:DELL), need to diversify or risk eventually becoming niche-product suppliers. With the move toward the smartphones as a primary consumer computing device, mobile ad spending will increase as well, boosting the bottom line of Google, among others—analyst Jim Friedland has pegged the search giant’s mobile ad revenues at $5.8 billion for 2012, more than double what it earned in 2011.