Understanding the Mobile Rule of Three

Aug 12, 2009

It's an interesting challenge. Lots of mobile devices that are all vying for the consumer pocket (and wallet). But just how many devices will consumers carry with them at any one time? The answer is important as that also helps define which devices will be successful and which ones will fail. Conventional wisdom holds that most consumers prefer to carry only a single device, and while that wisdom is correct it only tells a partial story. We've done some interesting research at Interpret that says there's more here than conventional wisdom would indicate and that consumers are willing to carry more than one device; however there's also an upper limit on that number.

What makes this all the more tricky is there's a lot of overlap in device functionality. Five years ago, mobile devices were easy to classify. Phones were for talking, cameras were for taking pictures and media players were for listening to music. Today's new converged devices raise the question of consumer preference to carry a single device vs. multiple standalone devices. We've discovered that even as there's consumer preference for a single device, consumers are actually willing to carry multiple devices as circumstances dictate. In fact, the curve for what consumers will carry is a not a linear curve downward starting with one as might be expected, but actually a bell curve balanced between one and three devices. Three, however, is an upper limit and there's a steep decline for consumers willing to carry four devices or more.

This willingness to carry multiple devices leads to what I like to call the mobile "rule of three". In order to be a part of the consumer mobile eco-system, device vendors must be certain to be a part of the top three devices consumers will carry with them. Devices that do not make it into the first three (and ideally the first two) are likely to be left behind and viewed as less important to consumers.

While it appears that there's a contradiction in terms of what consumers will carry and what they prefer to carry, I don't believe the two are at odds with each other. Rather, we are reaching a point where consumers will own and carry multiple devices based on context, always tending to carry the fewest devices possible at any given time. No less than needed and rarely more than three.

This contextual basis will mean that different devices fall into different parts of the consumer hierarchy based on their given mode. As the mobile space represents the place that is neither work nor home, consumers will use multiple devices that allow them to move in and out of both of these modes. The result is that there are scenarios that will make sense for consumers to carry a single converged device. For example a phone with integrated media player and camera might be the preferred device for taking to the gym to listen to music, or an evening dinner to capture casual photos. In contrast, a dedicated media player will be called for cross country flights and a dedicated camera for vacation trips or to capture important photographs.

Mobile devices are following two contradictory trajectories, with one class of devices fragmenting in terms of core functions creating new markets for standalone devices, while other converged devices are taking on new features and functions, rivaling standalone devices for features. Neither approach is universally correct and I think it's important that vendors creating mobile devices need to understand and focus on the contextual nature of consumer device use and find the core features to map into the first three device count of their mobile eco systems. So that leaves me with my question: how many devices are you willing to carry and what are they?

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