John Cooke: Smartphones are for so much more than chat
If YOU saw the pictures of the lines of people who queued for hours to buy the new iPhone 5, did you wonder what all the fuss was about? After all, this was not a ticket for the cup final, or a particularly rare bottling from the Malt Whisky Society.
However, while those iPhone über-enthusiasts are a minority, they nonetheless represent the tip of an iceberg – the increasing number of Scots who own a smartphone.
Nor is it simply that lots of us have got one of these gadgets, but the way we are now using them has changed, too. We no longer just use our mobiles to make calls (though last year, the number of calls made on mobiles exceeded the number of calls made on a landline) but rather we are using them – and/or some other mobile device like a tablet computer – to access the internet. It also seems that we’re choosing to do so even when we have got a desktop computer available.
Research carried out for the Mobile Operators Association (MOA) by YouGov suggests that more than half of Scots now have a smartphone. More than one in four (26 per cent) now also own tablets (that’s things like ipads, rather than the confectionery favoured by those with a sweet tooth). And 10 per cent of us have a “dongle” or similar to give us mobile broadband on our PCs.
The number of us getting these things is growing all the time. Comparing these recent figures to earlier research carried out for Ofcom, the telecommunications regulator, it looks as though ownership of smartphones has increased by nearly 50 per cent and that of tablets by more than 80 per cent in less than a year across the UK as a whole. In Scotland, the rate of growth is above the UK average.
Not surprisingly, the most popular internet-based activities for handsets are e-mail and accessing social networking sites. However, more than a third of us use mobiles to look at maps and find directions and nearly a third of us check bus or train times this way. Smartphones are also affecting the way we shop.
The MOA/YouGov research found that 10 per cent of folk buy goods and services via a tablet, and 13 per cent do so using a mobile. Many more than that will also be doing some online bargain-hunting or “‘Robo” (Research offline buy online): some surveys suggest that more than half of smartphone owners use their phone in some way when shopping.
You’d be right if you thought that these behaviour patterns are more prevalent among the younger generation: but not exclusively. Figures from the ONS reveal that in the UK as a whole, four in five people aged 55-64 have used the internet, as have 40 per cent of over-65s. As to what they are doing online, Age Scotland reckons that 63 per cent of online Scots over 50 use the internet for paying bills. When it comes to the over-70s, the main uses of the internet are shopping and keeping in touch with family.
And if the thought “why should I care?” is crossing your mind, the fact is that doing stuff on the internet is good for the economy. Numerous studies consistently show that even small increases in uptake of broadband can make statistically significant increases in GDP. For individual firms, the Boston Consulting Group suggests that SMEs with an internet presence see three-year growth rates up to 22 per cent higher than those without.
In these straitened times, getting any sort of growth into the wider economy is clearly good news. Getting online also makes sense for the individual consumer. For most people in work, real wages have stagnated or fallen in recent years: so knowing that shopping online saves the average family around £560 a year is a big incentive to get connected. When it comes to those without a job, far more vacancies are advertised online than via traditional media; and studies have shown that 90 per cent of jobs in developed countries now need at least basic ICT skills, and that people with good such skills can earn up to 10 per cent more than people without.
It’s vital that we improve digital connectivity in Scotland by ensuring that we have the right infrastructure in place – including phone masts, without which you won’t get a signal - and providing training so that those not already online have the skills to do so. In the 21st century, that’s not just an optional extra or something only for the gadget enthusiasts. It’s a necessary precondition for allowing all our people to realise their potential and ensuring that none of them become second class citizens.
• John Cooke is executive director of the Mobile Operators Association
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