How China’s Internet is Going Mobile, and Why That Could Be a Problem

C. Custer
4:00 am on Sep 26, 2012

Everyone knows that the internet is getting more mobile. With more handsets in more hands, more and more people across the world are moving away from their desks and out into the world when they surf the web. A new statistical report from CNNIC reveals that this is true in China, too — no surprise there — but the report delves way deeper into the mobile-only and PC only crowds than you might expect, and turns up some interesting revelations.

But first things first. How are things changing? The following chart, which like all the others on this page was constructed by Tech in Asia using the CNNIC data, gives a breakdown of the overall percent of net users who used only mobiles or only PCs to access the web in China over the past couple years. As you can see, the number of PC-only users is declining, and the number of mobile-only users is on its way up.

But who are these mobile-only users anyway? CNNIC’s data breaks down education demographics, offering the overall percentage of each demographic group that accesses the web via mobile-only. As you can see, the higher the user’s education level, the less likely they are to use only mobile devices to access the web. That makes a lot of economic sense — children and less educated adults are less likely to be able to afford pricey desktops and laptops.

CNNIC also looked at the data by industry, again breaking down the percentage of mobile-only users in each demographic group. Unsurprisingly, farmers and migrant workers are near the top, with nearly half of migrant workers who use the web accessing it only from their mobile devices. Comparatively few workers in white-collar industries like tech and government use only mobiles to access the web.

So where’s the problem? As China gets more mobile, there’s going to be increasing interest in monetizing these mobile-only internet users. The problem is, they tend to do less of just about everything than PC-only users do. The shopping numbers below are particularly grim for aspiring mobile e-commerce operations: just over 6% of mobile-only users use their devices to shop. Yikes.

Now, granted, these habits are likely as much a reflection of the mobile-only demographics as they are a reflection of users changing habits as they increasingly browse the web via mobile devices rather than PCs. But with more and more users going mobile-only, even a small shift in habits could have huge repercussions for internet industries. If I were someone working in e-commerce or web video especially, I would be a little uncomfortable looking at these numbers.

Mobile is the future. Will PC-only users bring their PC habits to their mobile browsing when they make the switch? Or do mobile-only users’ habits indicate a larger trend of differing browsing habits on mobile devices that could spell trouble for some of China’s internet companies?

[CNNIC Report, image via Shutterstock]

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