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AdMob Data Illustrates Why Feature Phones Aren't a Strategy for the Future

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AdMob today released its latest Mobile Metrics Report, which highlights the rapid rise of global smartphone usage over the past two years. Indeed, in every region of the world, mobile traffic has increased at least four times — and in some areas, 11 times — from that of 2008 levels. Aside from increased data demand and web usage, the comparisons of popular handsets and mobile platforms used over time illustrate dramatic shifts caused by the likes of relative upstarts, Google (s goog) and Apple (s aapl).

The trends captured by AdMob’s data reinforce my concerns about companies such as Nokia (s nok), which rely on a broad range of feature phones — with a particular focus on emerging countries, no less — to offset a lagging smartphone strategy. While smartphones currently account for a small percentage of overall worldwide handset sales, they show the most growth — 48 percent in the first quarter of 2010 over the same quarter a year prior, reports Gartner (s it) — and potential as hardware prices decline. The most worrisome example of a feature phone strategy in upcoming regions is evident in AdMob’s look at worldwide operating system share.

Nokia’s Symbian-powered devices were perennial powerhouses in the company’s backyard of Europe just a few years ago. Fast-forward to today and you see Western Europe dominated by two mobile platforms that didn’t even exist until mid-2007. AdMob’s data on Eastern Europe shows a similar, albeit not as dramatic, shift away from Symbian; meanwhile, Nokia barely has a presence in North America and Oceania. The bright spot is Africa, but if this were the board game RISK, Africa could also fall as iOS4 and the Android army march towards conquest. The only defense right now is the relatively limited data infrastructure in Africa — if that changes and smartphones continue to drop to feature phone price levels, it, too, will be overrun with smart, low-cost handsets.

Another takeaway from the AdMob report is increased Wi-Fi usage, with more than 24 percent of all mobile traffic in the U.S. coming through home networks and hotspots. Apple iOS4 devices take the lead in generating Wi-Fi traffic — likely speaking to the many iPod touch units that have no 3G connection as well as AT&T (s t) iPhone customers opting for faster and more stable wireless connections where available. More feature phones take advantage of Wi-Fi as well, generating almost as much wireless traffic as smartphones do, says AdMob.

Given the vast amount of data points compared over the prior two years, I recommend a download of the PDF report, which may be the last one for some time. AdMob, which was purchased by Google in November 2009, explains that it will be breaking from its monthly report schedule as it considers “how to re-invent the report to make it more useful and relevant.” I expect occasional data updates on the AdMob blog, but now that Google’s mobile ad platform is competing against Apple’s new iAd program on mobiles, Google may want to keep the juiciest bits for itself.

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11 Responses to “AdMob Data Illustrates Why Feature Phones Aren't a Strategy for the Future”

  1. Kevin –
    It may not change your thesis, indeed, I suspect everyone who is reading this article would agree with your thesis, but you cite it in a way that suggests it supports your thesis – which it simply doesn’t.

    I really like the AdMob reports – lots of interesting tidbits, but their data simply can’t be used to make statements about the entirety of the phone universe because it isn’t representative of the phone universe.

    • ejw, I totally understand your point, as well as Mark’s above. Data from multiple, appropriate sources are needed for analysis and each data provider should be scrutinized for how much (or how little) their information provides to the thesis. Note that I also cited Gartner numbers on smartphone growth to add to the thesis.

      Could there be more data added to support the thesis? Absolutely, but this post was driven by AdMob’s data, i.e.: as a daily news story. For additional and more detailed analysis, we often put 20-30 page reports together over on GigaOM Pro. I’m not mentioning that to get you to subscribe; simply saying that not every short-form post will pull in every possible datapoint each and every time. Appreciate your POV, however… good feedback for my writing approach going forward. :)

  2. good article. we, like many other developers, have seen business shift rapidly from carrier decks to smartphones.. less control by any party is good for the overall development of the market

  3. Narayanan

    Since most Android downloads tend to be free(ie; ad supported) Admob would be biased towards Android rather than iOS. Factoring that would tilt the numbers more in favor of iOS.

    The other interesting bit is Asia, which was predominantly Symbian till recently, especially the population centers like China, India and Indonesia. The rapid uptake of iOS and Android(to some extent) is remarkable.

  4. Just one MAJOR caveat – these data are all based on requests to AdMob’s ad platform, right? So the numbers don’t reflect actual handsets – just the mix of handsets AdMob is seeing. I can’t imagine there’s any chance that Europe has switched entirely to smart phones

      • Which is the weakness in your argument, Kevin. Try data from Smaato and you’ll get a different result.

        Plus, of course, even if Nokia weren’t transitioning to low cost smartphones – which they are – you’d simply allow the installation of ad supported web service like Snaptu on the phones instead.

        Not an issue really.

      • Mark, I understand your point that using data from different ad networks will yield different results — we’ve reported on the data, which shows high ad CTR on Symbian devices. But that data doesn’t have me changing my thesis of smartphones replacing feature phones over the long term worldwide.

      • Perhaps. It’s a bit puzzling when you say Nokia lag here considering they’re the ones doing the transitioning and the only major player with a strategy to do so.

      • “It’s a bit puzzling when you say Nokia lag here considering they’re the ones doing the transitioning and the only major player with a strategy to do so.”

        Ah… finally a comment from Mark that I can agree with. ;)

        IMO: Nokia is the only one transitioning in a major way because it’s has to catch up to the recent competitors. Apple and Google already planned and implemented, no? Granted, they have work to do too, as do RIM and MSFT….