Reversal in purchase patterns

Differences in usage and spending on mobile handsets among consumers around the world vary significantly by country. Just as purchases of mobile devices are growing in emerging markets and declining in the developed world, the usage patterns of devices varies by economy as well.

The results of online surveys by Accenture of internet-enabled consumers in eight countries - China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and the US - shine light on this fact.

To achieve high performance in the handset market, it will become crucial to focus on emerging countries. A disproportionately high percentage of usage and spending will take place in these countries during the next several years.

Japanese consumers have historically been early adopters of wireless technologies. But with the overall economy stagnating, and the nation's population already heavily equipped with consumer electronics, purchase patterns are reversing. During the past year, only one in five (19%) Japanese respondents bought a mobile handset, compared with the global average of 49%. And 16% plan to buy a mobile handset next year, compared with 36% worldwide. Just 4% plan to purchase a smartphone - more than five times below the 21% global average. The reversal in purchase patterns could partly be explained by a slowing upgrade cycle.

In neighboring China, by contrast, more than twice as many respondents plan to invest in mobile data service for laptops (44% vs., the 21% global average) and mobile data services for mobile phones (41% vs. 22%) over the next year. And when it comes to watching videos on mobile devices, 63% of those surveyed in China viewed clips occasionally - nearly twice the 35% global average.

Overall, 52% of emerging country respondents are likely to buy a smartphone next year compared to only 20% of mature country respondents.

Usage patterns also differ along economic development lines when it comes to mobile browsing. Nearly 60% of Chinese citizens surveyed - more than any other country in the study - use web-enabled mobile devices. Malaysians also rank high at 33%.

By contrast, while 27% of US respondents browse the web on their phones, that figure was just 7% in 2007. PC penetration is so high in the US that it continues to be the main device used to access the internet. But in China and Malaysia the handset has become the main device to connect to the internet. Yet the heavy growth in usage rates in countries like the US indicates that developed countries are starting to follow this trend as well.

Some mobile usage patterns are more universal. The top ranked application on mobile handsets (besides making calls) for all eight countries was texting, followed by emailing and taking photos. In general, these are the most popular applications because they are relatively inexpensive compared with applications like mobile video, yet enhance the user experience considerably.

These uses are also favored due to their relative ease of use compared to more advanced applications. Complexity is likely one of the reasons mobile video use is so low, with only 35% of overall respondents watching videos on mobile handsets and 34% browsing the web.

It is also one possible reason why more mobiles get returned than any of the other 17 consumer devices covered in the survey. With increased complexity comes more consumer confusion over how to use the devices, and hence more product returns. Compounding the problem could be that survey respondents are not getting the help they need during the handset purchasing process.

Jean-Laurent Poitou is the global managing director of Accenture's high-tech group