For numbers like this to mean anything, they have to be given context. We need a benchmark - something to give us a sense of whether this number is big or small. So here's one - every second of every day in the third quarter of this year 23 mobile phones were sold.
Now, aside from the obvious conclusion that every baby has about 10 mobile phones, that's a big number. In fact, just shy of a quarter of a billion handsets were sold in Q3 by the top five manufacturers.
Every year we look at the rate of growth and the increasing smartness of devices and believe the coming year will be the 'year of mobile marketing' (confession: I've been guilty of this too). So will 2008 finally be that year?
To reach the tipping point, there are three factors needed to drive audiences online: flat-rate data access, smart devices and worthwhile content.
This year mobile operators have moved toward charging a flat rate for internet access - a model that's expected to lead to a surge in use. The year also saw the emergence of much-improved devices such as Nokia's N95, which offered 3G-speed web access (when the battery hadn't run out) and Apple's iPhone, which wowed reviewers with what many saw as the first really usable mobile web device.
Driven by these developments, the number of UK mobile internet users has risen 30% in the last year, to 16m in October. Google tops the list of sites visited in the UK, followed by Orange and the BBC.
However, the numbers remain tiny in comparison with fixed web consumption, and media use on the mobile internet remains a niche activity. Nevertheless, while the consumption of media content has remained limited, what has emerged over the past year feels very much like the early years of the internet, as more applications are launched.
This year Westminster City Council converted many of its parking bays to payment by mobile phone (saving all that insecure cash collection), and Transport for London's Cabwise scheme now lets you text a short code to receive the phone numbers of two cab firms close to your location at the time.
You can microblog through Twitter, flirt through flirtomatic, instant message with people, check prices when standing in a shop or download a map showing where you are. There are even SMS-enabled rat traps.
Nokia has just launched a test using a phone with built-in Oyster Card to pay for London Tube and bus journeys, and with a stored-value card to make small payments. Using a mobile phone to make payments is already commonplace in Japan, where phones are also used to scan barcodes (QR codes) in newspapers - providing a return path for print advertising and a common means of distributing coupons.
So what is the significance of all these apparently unconnected things? The emergence of mobile as an internet device will not be driven by media content. As with the internet, there was no 'killer application', rather the gradual accretion of thousands of useful things; email, banking, dating, share-trading, news, shopping, online TV and search. As these services gathered, individual users reached their own tipping points; they weren't driven online by one service, but often by the addition of one application to the existing weight of services.
2008 won't be the 'year of mobile'. There isn't going to be a moment when we wake up and everything has changed. Instead, it will see the accumulation of more mobile services and applications.
So mobile success over the coming year isn't going to come from advertising; it will come to brands that bring value to consumers by providing stuff that they will use.
- Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level
30 SECONDS ON ... FLIRTOMATIC
- Flirtomatic is a free-to-use social networking site where 'hot girls and sexy men' converge to, er, flirt.
- Like communities such as Facebook, flirtomatic has applications such as 'free gift' tools and a ratings system.
- Unlike Facebook, photos of the portal's newest members are displayed in a collage on the homepage. Flirtomatic currently has more than 530,000 unique users.
- Members can interact on the move by texting 'FLIRT' to 84500 to set up a WAP account with their mobile phone.
- Users must be over 18, but no one is too old or 'shagged out' to sign up, apparently.
- Those who use the service, known as Flirts, are advised to 'avoid complex messages' such as IWTKYBAO (I want to kiss your body all over).
- The website offers tips, such as: 'You don't ALWAYS have to meet your flirting partner - it is possible to have a flirtationship that doesn't actually lead anywhere'.