Forget about Post-PC. Welcome to the Post-Phone Era

Voice Has Become a Secondary Mobile Communication Mechanism

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At the introduction of the iPad 2 in March, Apple CEO Steve Jobs proclaimed we had entered the "post-PC" era. But as he touted the new tablet's video-calling features, Jobs inadvertently signaled that we had entered the "post-phone" era as well.

If this conjures an image of people awkwardly holding tablets to their ears, think again. The essence of the post-phone era lies in the changing nature of communication -- not only the devices we use to communicate, but also the ways in which we use them -- and the new doors this opens for marketers.

Virtually every mobile usage study conducted in recent years has shown a marked decline in voice calling. This trend has been accompanied by a rise in other communication channels, starting with SMS and extending to social and other networks such as Skype, BlackBerry Messenger, Kik and FaceTime.

According to the semi-annual survey by the U.S. trade body CTIA The Wireless Association, minutes of use (MOUs) and the number of text messages sent -- two key industry measures for wireless usage -- are trending in opposite directions. MOUs, which represent talk time, declined in 2010 after two decades of growth, while the number of text messages sent rose 31%. At the current trajectory, 2011 will see the number of text messages sent in the U.S. surpass MOUs for the first time, officially making voice a secondary mobile communication mechanism.

In fact, voice is already secondary for many mobile users. In the fourth quarter 2010, Nielsen found teen mobile users aged 13 to 17 sent and received 21 times more text messages per month than calls. That is a slightly different measure than the one used by CTIA, but directionally consistent. At this point, Nielsen's research indicates that only users over the age of 55 call more than they text, and even among these older users, the gap is closing.

Meanwhile, more than 27% of all U.S. mobile users accessed social networking sites from their mobile devices in the three months ended in March 2011, ComScore determined. Usage rates are anywhere from two to four times higher among smartphone owners, depending on which source you favor, with the general rule being that users of smarter devices use more services more often. The diffusion of tablets and connected devices in our homes, offices and even cars will further accentuate this trend. For example, now that Microsoft has acquired Skype, imagine the possibilities of Skype plus Xbox Kinect plus an internet-connected HDTV.

As communication on connected devices has become more social, it has also become more public, and that is where things get interesting for marketers. Mobile users increasingly rely on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to exchange messages. The migration away from closed loop voice calling to these more visible, web-based platforms gives marketers entree to consumer interests and preferences in a way that one-to-one conversations could never permit.

The use of free or low-cost platforms does come at some price for consumers, however. The spread of post-phone, device-agnostic communication means brand messaging will be progressively inescapable. On the other hand, the personal information we share, often publicly, across our preferred platforms means that messaging will also be progressively more targeted -- a fair trade-off provided that adequate consumer safeguards are put in place.

None of this is to say that people will be ditching their phones anytime soon in favor of toting around a tablet. After all, there is an undeniable convenience (and comfort, for that matter) in the size and form factor of a phone. But at the same time, the calling capabilities that identify a phone as a phone are increasingly irrelevant.

In the post-phone era, we can call, message and network from a range of devices, both portable and stationary. This communication is no longer limited to what might be regarded as traditional telephony. Rather, it is all about data, whether exchanged over cellular networks or the web.

In turn, the battleground lies in how much of that data marketers can see and what they do with it. Done right, their participation will enrich and become part of the fabric of our conversations as a result.

Noah Elkin is a principal analyst at eMarketer, covering mobile media and marketing.
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