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Mobile phones are like bicycles

November 18, 2008

Why is it that people keep pointing to countries like India and China and arguing that the PC is dead and that we should be focusing on mobile phones as the new platform for computation and the new portal for accessing the Internet? Yes, I know that the data says that right now that people in those countries use mobile phones more than they use PCs. And yes, that does mean there is a compelling opportunity to create mobile internet experiences for them. But there’s a compelling opportunity to create mobile experiences worldwide, and it’s a bad assumption that just because many people use a mobile phone without a PC now that they will continue to use a mobile phone in isolation in the future. In other words, no, the mobile phone is not the new PC. It’s different than the PC. It’s useful in situations where desktops and laptops are not, and vice versa. It will complement the PC, not replace it.

To my mind, the parallel here is the bicycle. Bicycles are great machines for getting around; I use mine at least three days a week. But I use my bicycle to complement my car, not to replace it (although to be honest I’d prefer to be able to use my bicycle more and my car less). Bicycles are also popular as a means of transportation in countries like India and China; I still remember news articles from a few years back talking about how Beijing was so bicycle-friendly (something that most American cities alas are not). But bicycles were not used more than cars because people preferred bicycles to cars, but because cars were so expensive. As car prices drop and the standard of living in a country rises, car use increases and bicycle use decreases.

So as PC prices continue to drop and the global standard of living continues to rise (current malaise notwithstanding), do you really think that people are going to keep using their mobile phones in isolation and eschew buying PCs? Of course they’re not; they’re going to buy PCs and use them to complement their mobile phones, just like people do in the US and Europe (do you know anyone who’s gotten an iPhone or G1 who’s thrown away their PC?). So yes, I’m all for creating compelling new user experiences for mobile devices. But let’s not get too caught up with the assumption that we must design for mobile-only use.

From → Musings

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