February 8, 2012, 3:55 PM

111.2 million consumers browse the web on their phones

Did that get your attention? It better.

Lead Photo

The new data is in, and the trend continues. In the fourth quarter of 2011, 41.8% of all mobile subscribers age 13 and older used smartphones, online and mobile research firm comScore Inc. finds. That’s 97.9 million out of 234.2 million mobile subscribers. That percentage grew across 2011: In Q1 it was 30.9%, in Q2 it was 33.5% and in Q3 it was 37.4%.

Smartphone penetration nearly doubled in a year and a half, from 21.9% in June 2010 to 41.8% in December 2011. I believe we’re going to see even bigger gains in 2012 as more people fall for the allure of the amazing devices. By the end of 2012 (assuming the world doesn’t end Dec. 21 thanks to the Mayans), I think nearly half of all mobile subscribers will have smartphones in their pockets.

So what are we buying? ComScore breaks it down for the fourth quarter of 2011. Google Inc.’s Android ranked as the top smartphone platform with 47.3% market share, up 2.5 percentage points from Q3 2011. Apple Inc. and its iPhone maintained the No. 2 position, growing 2.2 percentage points to 29.6% of the smartphone market. Research In Motion’s BlackBerry platform ranked third with 16% share, continuing its downward death spiral by 2.9 percentage points. Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Phone came in fourth with a dismal 4.7% share, down nine-tenths of a percentage point (so much for the marketing push). And the also-ran Symbian platform came in fifth with 1.4% share, down four-tenths of a point. Other, obscure platforms accounted for 1% of smartphones in Q4 2011.

There are two key points in the new research from comScore. Of all mobile subscribers age 13 and older in Q4 2011, 47.5% accessed the web through a mobile browser (up 4.6 percentage points from 42.9% in Q3 2011) and 47.6% used mobile apps (up 5.1 percentage points from 42.5% in Q3 2011). It should be noted that some feature phones run apps, though these apps don’t compare to the powerful, highly graphical apps on smartphones.

So nearly half of all mobile phone subscribers—that’s 111.2 million people—browse the web on their devices and use mobile apps. But one thing missing from the data is frequency. How often do people surf the mobile web, and how many times a week do people use their apps? I believe people access the mobile web more often than they use apps.

For years I’ve heard from analysts that so many apps get downloaded once then never used again. And then there are the apps that are used for a little while but then get forgotten about in the clutter. Plus, people are used to browsing on their desktops, and I believe they transfer that behavior to their smartphones (and tablets).

Every smartphone owner has a core group of apps he uses on a very regular basis (not counting contacts, calendar, texting and photos). For me it’s the New York Times, Twitter, Who News (about the Doctor Who TV show), Fandango, and Kindle for iPhone. That’s it. And I have more than 100 apps on my phone. I spend more time browsing; though the time I spend with those five apps comes close. But even still, even if I spent more time with those five apps than I did browsing, take that into the context of the more than 100 apps I have on my phone. What’s happening with the other 95 apps? Just about nothing.

If you’re just starting out in mobile commerce, build yourself an m-commerce site first, then wait a bit and see if there’s the need for an app later. Having a hard core group of brand loyalists is a good reason to launch an app. But site first. And if you’ve already got a site, then think about redesigning it (take a look at my story in the magazine this month), and especially consider using HTML5 to make the site function and look more like a slick app (see my magazine story in the upcoming March issue of Internet Retailer).

111.2 million people are browsing the web on their phones today. If you’re not there with an optimized m-commerce site, you’re pushing your luck.

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