The Evolving Mobile Ecology: An Alternative to Convergence

Over the past decades, many scholars and practitioners have forecast the convergence of ICTs, such as around digital communication. In some respects, the move to digital has not led to convergence as much as to a growing range of ICTs that are separate but related in a complex ecology (Noll 2014). For example, as noted above, the smartphone is but part of this growing ecology. In other respects, there are some elements of convergence across technologies. As one expert put it in an interview:

‘We are all just nodes on a network, and the IP networks have pretty much already converged, but that convergence will be completed sometime in the next ten years. . . . In time, there will be no easy distinction between a mobile cellular network and an IP network. As far as us humans are nodes on the network, I think it will make very little difference if we access or interface with a mobile device or a fixed device. I think that over time, our mobile device will simply dock in a fixed place.’ (Varney 2014)

This idea underscores the different levels and types of convergence being considered. Technical convergence is distinct from other areas of convergence, such as in markets or services (Garnham 1999). Richard Feasey (2014) raised key issues around this potential. When asked about trends toward convergence, he noted:

‘Superficially, yes. The more interesting point is that the mobile value chain is very different to the fixed Internet—it is much more ‘closed’ and vertically integrated, with two dominant ecosystems: Apple and Google, tied to tight integration between the OS and the apps. Search and open access is increasingly dead in the mobile environment as users stick to preinstalled apps. The other key point is that mobile Internet requires the same experience to be rendered across multiple devices rather than a single PC or desktop, which again drives integration.’

The lack of convergence was a focus of an interview with James Thickett (2014), who explained differences emerging in the use of smartphones and tablets:

‘The social engagement with a tablet is very different from social engagement with a smartphone. In the early days, people thought that one device would substitute for another, but they have tended to be complementary. Both are growing rapidly. We think smartphones will be nearly ubiquitous 80 percent plus, and tablets will possibly reach 2/3rds of the public. In any case, we will probably have the majority of people possessing a smartphone and a tablet and using them for different things in different places, and probably over different networks. Smartphones primarily use mobile licensed spectrum, but increasingly Whitespaces, WiFi, and other networks, while tablets are largely used on fixed networks through WiFi, but also out of the home. Smartphones are primarily about communication—texting, emailing, social networks, [ . . . ] but also location-based services and entertainment, such as amusing yourself with games while on the train. Tablets are primarily used for entertainment, such as watching video, but also for transactions.’

These factors are likely to be a continuing brake on the convergence of mobile and the Internet. The growing ecology can be seen today as the phone is being joined by a host of other portable devices, such as tablets, readers, and laptops, that can be used for some or all of the functions supported on the smartphone. What’s more is that over one half of smartphone users across all world regions use at least one additional mobile Internet-enabled device, such as a tablet computer or a reader, in addition to their mobile phone (Figure 1, GIVP 2012). Likewise, James Thickett (2014) argued on the basis of UK studies that while desktop and laptop computing are experiencing declining sales, ‘we have not seen the mobile becoming the only device’.

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