You Think The United States Leads The Way In Mobile Technology Usage? Guess Again

By Michael D. Cole — May 25, 2010

Is the United States in the stone age when it comes to adoption of cutting edge and traditional mobile services?

The surprising answer is a resounding yes -- at least according to a comprehensive Sybase 365 study released this month (May 2010) that issued findings on mobile information access, commerce and communication.

Among the study's key findings was that the United States finished dead last among the 16 countries surveyed "when looking at the use of basic mobile communications technologies, such as text messaging and instant messaging."

By contrast, the study found that China and India (as well as Asia as a whole in general) are far ahead in regards to adapting new mobile services and more established technologies such as text messaging.

Only 31.5 percent of U.S. mobile users polled made use of those basic text messaging and instant messaging technologies (more astonishing when considering the text message's origins actually date back two decades ago).

By contrast 90 percent of Chinese respondents claimed to make use of the same technologies.

When expanding the scope to include "modern mobile services," the United States finished near the bottom of the pack for ability to access information, the use of mobile commerce and the use of mobile communications, (ranking just ahead of Canada and Australia). Just 12.9 percent of U.S. respondents reported they use such services according to the survey versus 49 percent in China.

Sybase 365, the provider of mobile messaging and mobile commerce services, commissioned the study on today's mobile culture. It surveyed 4,100 mobile phone users across the 16 countries, which also included France, Germany, South Africa, Mexico and the United Kingdom, among others. At least 250 mobile phone users from each country participated in the online survey.

How An iPhone Nation Trails the Mobile Pack

While the findings may contradict what we as Americans who are tethered to our mobile devices would believe, they are easy to understand when scratching beneath the surface, says Diarmuid Mallon, product marketing manager at Sybase 365.

Simply stated, Mallon says text messaging services have not been rolled out as effectively in the U.S. as they have in other parts of the world. Additionally, he notes that monthly packages from carriers here in the United States have not emphasized or offered discounts for text messaging, in the way they have for unlimited phone minutes.

"In the states you pay to receive messages, pretty much everywhere else it's the vendor pays. It's a completely different charging model (in the United States)," Mallon said during a phone interview from the U.K.

The majority of all users surveyed worldwide expressed a desire to expand their current mobile horizons with 70 percent wanting extra services.

Almost 46 percent of all users surveyed expressed an interest, for instance, in receiving emergency alerts. But, as Mallon puts it, "people hold back" when it means an increase to their mobile phone bill.

For example, as mobile communities sprout up, Mallon says U.S. users "are very keen to get messages from these online communities sent to their phone, but they're very nervous about paying for that. I think people recognize the intrinsic value there but there's that degree of uncertainty about what the volume of messages will mean. If you've only got 100 messages in your bundle, you don't want all of those to (be allocated to) trivial updates from your friends texting you that they've gone to buy some coffee."

From an enterprise perspective, Mallon says the dynamic also trickles its way into the workplace, especially as the survey represents about half of all people using their same device for personal and business usage: "It comes back to that element that 'It's a workphone and I shouldn't be receiving messages or alerts because my employer now has to pay for them,' says Mallon. "You might even be prohibited at your office from receiving them. It certainly does present a challenge to adaptation."

Without such restrictive consideration, other countries have implemented -- and greatly benefitted from -- advanced mobile commerce services where they need them most, Mallon points out. In South Africa for instance, people have embraced paying their utility bills through SMS and a payment card that acts as currency. And in Austria (a country that was not included in the commissioned survey) loose change is not needed to fill your parking meter; as a text message payment will suffice. "You're even reminded by via when say your meter in Vienna  is set to expire and you're asked if you wish to re-feed it," Mallon says.

Catching Up To Opportunity

While the survey indicates the United States is currently behind the curve when it comes to utilizing mobile messaging and commerce, Mallon highlights the "real opportunity for operators, brands and content providers, enterprises and financial institutions."

The Sybase study revealed that half of all mobile users currently access the Internet on a weekly basis and 30 percent take advantage of mobile banking services.

Sybase, which is being acquired by SAP, offers a broad portfolio of mobile services for the enterprise marketplace, including mobile CRM, and according to Mallon, its mission is to enable such an ecosystem that advances such services to flourish.

"If I was a brand, I would think about how I make these text messages pay their way," he says. "There's a wide degree of space in an SMS for putting in an advertising message. You can explore opportunities like mobile couponing, mobile vouchers ... you can use mobile as a way of actually interacting with customers and finding out which services they're after. That can be very valuable."

As the study only verified, mobile phones are no just longer communications devices, and the sky is the limit for their potential as life management tools and virtual wallets, among other possibilities.

"The demand for new services represents a real opportunity for those savvy enough to recognize it," Mallon says.

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