What is the phone that the average "man on the street" in Timbuktu, Tangerang or Tehran carries with him? Does his phone have a camera or is that something he still must only long after ever so wistfully? Remember, many of these people's budgets are based on cost in pennies, not tens or hundreds of dollars. Can he access the internet with his phone? If you tried to send him a video clip would his phone have memory to accept it and a media player to view it? What are the chances you could reach him with the Gospel via an app versus via an MMS (Multi-media Messaging Service) message? If you can answer the question of what your intended audience's phones' capabilities are, in general, you are pretty far along in figuring out what aspect of mobile phone ministry to focus on for reaching that audience.
Tomi Ahonen is a highly respected mobile analyst and his recent blog post, Preview of Mobile Stats to End of Year 2010, provides some extremely helpful baseline insight into the worldwide state of mobile phone capabilities and I'd like to share his findings below:
100% (of all mobile phones currently in use) can do SMS - this is 4.25 Billion phone handsets that can send and receive messages
97% have at least a basic browser (including WAP, not necessarily color)
95% have a color screen - this is 4 Billion, more than twice the number of TV sets and 3x number of PCs
92% are data-capable (at least 2.5G ie GPRS or basic CDMA 2000)
85% support MMS - this is 3.6 Billion, more than twice number of TV sets and 2x active users of eMail
81% are cameraphones - this is 3.4 Billion cameras
76% have a full brower ie HTML type of browser (compare with 17% which is total number of smartphones)
62% have a media player
61% support apps using Java or Brew (compare with 17% which is total number of smartphones)
51% have a memory card slot
35% are 3G phones (not nearly all are on 3G networks)
21% support WiFi
17% are smartphones
12% are second-hand phones (mostly in emerging world countries, but also with younger kids)
(courtesy of Tomi Ahonen, Preview of Mobile Stats to End of Year 2010)
What are some takeaways from these stats? It seems obvious to me that if you want to reach the unreached, who are, as a whole, some of the poorest people on the face of the planet, you start at the top of the list and work your way down when planning out a mobile ministry strategy. If only 17% of all mobile phones are smartphones it seems a little crazy to start off with a mobile ministry strategy that is built around an app, something that automatically will not function on at least 83% of your potential audience's phones. On the other hand, if you can work creatively within the limitations handed to you by WAP (Wireless Access Protocol) internet browsers or SMS texting your mobile ministry will be able to reach 97% plus of all mobile phone users out there! Be careful about building a ministry around the idea that people will be able to download big files over high speed 3G networks when only 35% of phones have 3G connectivity, only a small percentage of those phones are actually on 3G networks (for instance, new figures show that only 39 million of China's 800 million mobile phone users are using the 3G networks available there), and only a much a smaller number of mobile phone users can actually afford the data charges for big file downloads anyways (at the same time, get those files up on the web so that people can download them at an internet cafe where downloads are cheap and then transfer those files to their mobile phones at no cost)!
While we can dream of an plan for the eventual tipping point where smartphones pass the 50% mark, and that may well be in the next five years or so, let's start out coming up with some hard-core crazy creative mobile ministry outreaches that take advantage of the capabilities of the phone that is already in the pocket of your average Amdou, Adi and Arash.