We spend a lot of time talking about the ubiquity of the mobile phone at FrontlineSMS. So much time, in fact, that we've now forbidden the use of the word in the office. It's not the word's fault, though, that it's been so difficult to get an accurate idea of exactly how many people, how many unique entities, have mobile phones. Mobile network operators hold on to that data pretty tightly, so we go with the best data we can find.
This week, thanks to the GSM Association (GSMA), the trade body for mobile network operators (MNOs) who use the GSM standard, the data got a little bit better. The GSMA released a report that identifies and begins to address the difference between the number of subscriptions (SIM cards purchased) and the number of unique customers (people). Of course, even here, there are methodological questions, but we welcome another, well-conceived data point. And the results send a couple of very important messages.
First, and perhaps most importantly, it shows just how far we are from mobile saturation. It's not crazy to think that MNOs have some vested interest in making things appear that way. That said, the GSMA report provides context on mobile penetration rates worldwide, and also illustrates the highly variable adoption of mobile phones across culture, region, and affluence. The mobile market has always been fragmented by standard (GSM v. CDMA), sophistication of device, network coverage and services, and software operating system, among other variables, but is often viewed as a monolithic communication platform. This report quantifiably illustrates that, although it goes further than any other two-way communication platform or commercial electronic device in history, the mobile phone alone is not going to solve the world's problems.
Second, the growing- and growingly fragmented- mobile market underlines just how important it is to design toward a multi-channel future. It helps us, as a community, to focus not only on the user, but on building complete life cycles of information within one user experience.
At FrontlineSMS, we talk quite a bit about user-centered design, but what we often mean is behavior-focused design. Behavior-focused design starts with the desired outcome and then creates as many pathways to enable that outcome as possible. Too often, we focus on one platform and pile all of our expectations on its ability to solve the most complicated problems in the world. At FrontlineSMS, we are the first to admit that SMS is not a good platform for lots of things. SMS is, however, very, very good for many things (and many more things than it's currently being used for). SMS is one pathway toward achieving an objective and often works where few other pathways do. But SMS is just a piece of the puzzle. The platform, like the information it transports, is only valuable when it’s connected to other things and systems.
There is not now, nor will there ever be, one technology platform or tool that replaces the need for thoughtful design processes that guide human behavior through to a desired objective. It’s time for all of us to stop focusing on the platform and start focusing on the problems we’re trying to solve. All great progress has come from a group of people working together - there’s no reason the promise of technology should be any different.