Once upon a time, the vast majority of internet users were connecting via PCs and laptops - many of them exclusively so. But in the last decade, the landscape has changed considerably; PCs and laptops might still be hugely important, especially in mature regions and among older age groups, but they're no longer the same type of dominant force or default choice that they once were. With each quarter that passes, more people have a smartphone, they spend longer on them each day and they use them to undertake a greater number of their online activities.
That acknowledged, the reality in today's digital landscape is that most internet users are Multi-Device users. When we interviewed 85,000 online adults across 34 countries recently, that most people have multiple screens and access points was abundantly clear: 79% were Multi-Device Users, 6% were non-Mobile and 15% were Mobile-Only. Overall, the typical online 16-64 year-old owned over three connected devices - a metric which remained remarkably consistent by age, even if the exact devices themselves changed a little in nature across the generations. Perhaps most importantly, only 2.7% of the Multi-Device owners we spoke to said they went online via their mobile only. Put another way, if you own a mobile + other devices, you're overwhelmingly likely to use those other devices to get online too.
It's the Mobile-Only audience which has long presented researchers and marketers with more of a challenge. Many online surveying, advertising and marketing processes were developed with PCs and laptops in mind, but replicating this for mobiles is pretty complex - not least because screen sizes are smaller, functionality is reduced and attention spans are considerably shorter.
Nevertheless, if you're not currently speaking to Mobile-Only Users then you are missing out on a pretty substantial chunk of the online population. Particularly striking is their concentration in fast-growth / emerging markets, which occupied 13 of the top 15 spots (dominated by the Middle East and APAC). In places like the UAE, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, as many as 1 in 3 internet users are now Mobile-Only.
Look at the other end of the table - where you find every single one of the mature markets - and the same audience accounts for under 5% of online adults in places like Canada, Germany, the USA and UK. That's not a surprise when you consider how the internet landscape developed differently across regions, but does give context for why our existing data has so consistently shown that consumers in fast-growth markets spend the longest amount of time on mobile and are typically the trend-setters when it comes to adopting new mobile services or behaviors.
Demographically, this audience also stands itself apart: Mobile-Only users are (much) younger, less urban and less likely to have obtained higher education qualifications than their Multi-Device counterparts. They are also less likely to be in employment, and less likely to be in high-earning households. Of course, some of these characteristics are closely correlated; the much younger age-profile of this audience has a direct impact on their earning power and also helps to explain why they are 30% more likely to be living with their parents. However, these trends also reflect the reality that mobiles have opened up the internet to audiences who might otherwise lack the infrastructure or resources to access via more expensive or traditional devices like PCs/laptops. Many are Mobile-Only not out of choice, but necessity.
Online behaviors can be different too. Look at social media engagement and Mobile-Only users are 20% more likely to be on Facebook, despite having about half as many social networking/messaging service accounts as their Multi-Device counterparts. Interestingly, Mobile-Only users have a lead over other mobile users only for Facebook and WhatsApp, and then trail behind for all other major services. This might suggest that their social behaviors are concentrated around a smaller number of services - something which makes sense given that they are restricted to one access point, and might have a desire to preserve their data allowances.
Of course, we shouldn't assume the Mobile-Only audience is homogenous across markets. Age is the most obvious example of this; broadly speaking, the lower a country's overall internet penetration rate, the higher the proportion of 16-24s we find in its Mobile-Only audience. In Indonesia, where the World Bank estimates internet penetration at sub-25%, 6 in 10 Mobile-Only users are from the youngest age group; in Saudi Arabia (World Bank estimate at 70% internet penetration), only 3 in 10 Mobile-Only users are from the 16-24 group.
Much more consistent across countries is that, to date, Mobile-Only users have typically been under-valued and under-represented. And if that's a problem now, it's one which is only going to get more acute; after all, the Mobile-Only audience is set to swell still further in the years ahead as hundreds of millions of new internet users come online for the first time via mobile. Some of them will then evolve into Multi-Device users, but whether through choice or not, the number of internet users who remain Mobile-Only in the coming decade will be substantial.