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What’s the right news experience on a phone? Stacy-Marie Ishmael and BuzzFeed are trying to figure it out
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June 8, 2009, 10:02 p.m.

Extra, extra, read all about it on your iPhone: Mobile news is gaining fast

iphoneA convergence of factoids seems to point to something inevitable: the future of news delivery is on wireless devices, and those devices will be smartphones, much more than e-readers.

First, here’s data about the ubiquity of wireless as of the end of 2008, which is already nearly half a year ago, all from CTIA, “The Wireless Association” (what the initial actually stand for, I can’t figure out) (via Amy Gahran at Poynter):

— The U.S. has 270.3 million wireless subscribers, which is the equivalent of 87 percent of the entire population.  At the end of 2005 the penetration was just 69 percent.  It looks like only centenarians and some of the sub-teen population are still cellphone-less.

— 17.5 percent of households are wireless-only and have no “land line” (one of those retro-formations, like “analog watch”).  This is more than double the 2005 level of 8.4 percent.

— In 2008, we used our wireless phones for 2.2 trillion minutes, which is almost 50 percent more than during 2005.

— We sent 1 trillion SMS messages during 2008, which more than 10 times the 2005 level of 81 billion.

Now, at the cutting edge of all these wireless users are the smart-phone owners, and thanks to a study from gravitytank, we have some insights into them as well:

  • More than half of smart-phone users see apps as essential to the experience: “When the iPhone was launched, it was a $500 piece of crap.  Now, with apps, it’s a minicomputer,” says user Ryan.
  • “App phone users” — those smart-phone users who have downloaded apps — report spending an average of two hours a day using their phone; 40 percent of that time is devoted to app use; app users interact with their phone an average of 30 times a day.

Finally, we have a report on Beet.TV that the New York Times in April served up 60 million mobile views, twice the level of April 2008.  Further in Beet’s story:

  • Nielsen says there are 53.4 million mobile internet users in the U.S. (this would be about 20 percent of the 270.3 million wireless subscribers reported above, but undoubtedly the fraction is growing).
  • Of these, 22.3 million are using their mobile phone to access news.
  • Half of those (11.6 million) are visiting CNN.com.
  • However, among iPhone users, 80 percent are browsing the Web.  (And by the way, the price on a basic 3G model just dropped to $99 today.)
  • The New York Times iPhone app has been downloaded 2 million times.

As far as news is concerned, with this kind of momentum for mobile delivery, the race (if there ever was one) between smartphones and e-readers may well be over.  Sure, e-paper is a superior interface, but smartphones win, because they can do 10, 20 or 100 things besides letting you read black-and-white print.

All this Web access by smartphone is likely to overtake Web viewing via broadband.  U. S. households with computers have leveled off at about 80 percent.  Most of those of internet access, most internet access is now broadband, but still, less than 70 percent of households are hooked up with broadband, versus the above-cited 87 percent of all individuals with cell phones.

One implication of the small screen, when it comes to news: we may be less inclined to work hard for news by searching, surfing and visiting aggregators, and more inclined to let the news come to us, by whatever means.  The challenge, then, for publishers, may be to create apps that deliver custom-tailored news to fit preferences and interests of phone users.  As a start, they should follow Amy Gahran’s suggestions on checking how mobile-friendly their current sites are.

POSTED     June 8, 2009, 10:02 p.m.
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