By Anam Alpenia
2014 was another landmark year in the technology business, and with all the controversies, breakthroughs and mega money deals, one thing is certain – the world is yet again a more mobile place than 12 months previously. With that in mind, here are the top three mobile news stories to follow in 2015.
Global smartphone penetration
There are several indicators which could validate Marc Andreessen’s prophesy of 5 billion smartphone owners by 2020. The first place to look is Africa. The continent now boasts several well-funded mobile-first start-ups centered around e-commerce (Jumia, Konga) and payments (Kopo Kopo, Nomanini), and for good reason. eMarketer estimated that smartphone penetration grew 31% in 2014, but the overall number still represents only 9% of the continent’s population. In Burma, meanwhile, foreign wireless providers are pouring into the country, eager to create a 3G network that will reach 90% of the country’s population in just five years. And Xiaomi, China’s mid-priced smartphone manufacturer, poised to capitalize on this growth in emerging markets, has raised money at a higher valuation ($45 billion) than Uber.
But it’s not just in the developing world where there is a substantial opportunity for first encounters with the Internet, mediated by a smartphone. According to a recent study conducted by Eurostat, the statistical office of the E.U., 18% of the surveyed respondents on the continent answered “never” when asked if they had ever used the Internet. How quickly these markets bridge the gap between “the population” and “the smartphone population” is not just significant to technology onlookers; there are real geopolitical implications as well.
Mobile payment proliferation
When Snapchat, the ephemeral messaging service known today for selfies and sexting, introduced Snapcash, a new feature that allows users to send real money back and forth within the app, more than a few eyebrows were raised. A year from now, though, we all might be applauding CEO Evan Spiegel’s foresight, as smartphone payment functionality seems headed towards ubiquity. Capgemini expects the number of mobile payments to grow by 60.8% in 2015, to 47 billion, while over 20% of transactions at Starbucks, the world’s most mobile-savvy retailer, figure to be performed by a smartphone next year. With the recent launch of Apple Pay, the competitive landscape has become so crowded, and so fast-moving, that eBay is unfettering the company that started it all, PayPal, through a divestiture, just so that it can keep pace. Fintech was the hottest technology sector towards the end of the year, with several companies tapping the public markets for huge payouts. Expect the trend to continue in 2015, but with mobile-first payment options, either as a core offering or a component of a broader service, this time leading the way.
Uber’s legal battles
It seems like with each passing day, from Portland to Seoul, Uber is confronted with another legal challenge to its service model. The specific objections to Uber are varied; some have to do with licensure (Korea) and background checks (California), others with insurance (Australia), and still others with credit card requirements (India, Thailand). However, the dynamics of the legal objections, where the regulated incumbents attempt to defend their claims against plucky upstarts, is more universal. The language used to describe Uber in Germany, like “anarchy capitalism” and “locust share economy,” is echoed in recent statements by public officials on the West Coast. In California, district attorneys George Gascon and Jackie Lacey have accused the company of “(refusing) to comply with straightforward California laws that protect consumers from fraud and harm,” while Portland mayor Charlie Hales has gone on the record to say Uber disagrees with the notion that “good regulations make for a safer community.” These arguments transcends the cab industry. As a harbinger of the emergent “Sharing Economy,” a whole line of new businesses, including Airbnb and Spotify, will be closely following Uber’s fate.