Facebook can’t take Asian growth for granted

A piece I wrote ahead of Facebook’s IPO, casting a skeptical eye over assumptions that Asia would continue to be a source of major growth for the company.

Even as Facebook fever grips investors ahead of the social networking giant’s potential $100 billion-plus initial public offering, its breakneck growth in Asia may be slowing as it moves beyond desktop users to those who access the Internet largely or solely from a mobile phone.

In March, Facebook revised its own SEC filings to scale back its scope for further growth in India – its third-biggest user base and the largest population it currently has access to – China remains off-limits to Facebook. And independent data show that user numbers in Indonesia and the Philippines, its other largest Asia user bases, have actually fallen off slightly in the past three months.

“If you’ve been growing at such a huge amount it will definitely trail off,” said Ganesh Kumar Bangah, Kuala Lumpur-based CEO of online payment provider MOL Global. “You can’t expect it to keep growing.”

Read the rest: Analysis: Facebook can’t take Asian growth for granted

Southeast Asia’s Third Mobile Tier

The mobile revolution is moving from second tier countries in Southeast Asia to the third and final tier. Whereas previously Indonesia and the Philippines were seeing the biggest growth in mobile Internet traffic, now it’s Burma (Myanmar) and Cambodia which top the list in terms of user- and usage-growth, according to the Opera State of the Mobile Web report for July:

    • Myanmar and Cambodia lead the top 10 countries of the region in terms of page-view growth (6415.0 % and 470.1 %, respectively).
    • Myanmar and Cambodia lead the top 10 countries of the region in growth of unique users (1207.5 % and 179.1 %, respectively).
    • Myanmar and Cambodia lead the top 10 countries of the region in growth of data transferred (3826.6 % and 353.2 %, respectively)

Of course these figures are from a low base, and the Opera data is not the easiest to trawl through. (The Opera mobile report is always interesting reading, so long as you take into account that the Opera browser is for many people a Symbian browser and so of declining popularity in some quarters. Also their data is never presented in quite the order one would like, so you have to dig. )

Looking at the figures in more detail, and throwing them into a spreadsheet of my own, it’s clear that Burma is definitely an outlier. Cambodia’s growth is impressive, but Burma’s is by far the greatest out of all 27 countries surveyed. Here’s how it looks:

2011-07 Page view growth SEA

So is the Burma usage real, or is this just a jump from nothing to slightly more than nothing? I suspect it may actually be a sizeable jump. Opera are coy about the actual number of users (so we may actually be dealing with a small dataset). But the figures suggest that this is a real spurt in usage: Burmese mobile users are transferring more data per page view than any other of the 27 countries surveyed, and the page views per user is on a par with the Philippines and Thailand.

I’d cautiously suggest that Burma, along with Cambodia and Laos, are beginning to show exhibit some of the signs of what one might pompously call “mobile societies”: using the mobile phone as an Internet device as a regular part of their activities. Take the page views per user, for example, which measures how much they’re using the mobile phone to view the Internet (Brunei seems to be in a league of its own; I don’t know what’s going on there, except that in terms of nightlife, I’d have to say not much):

2010-07 Page views per user SEA

It’s probably too much to conclude that mobile phones as Internet devices are now mainstream in this third tier of the region, but it’s a healthy sign, with lots of interesting implications.

Facebook’s ‘Locality of Friendship’

This visualization by Facebook intern Paul Butler illustrates what he calls

the locality of friendship. I was interested in seeing how geography and political borders affected where people lived relative to their friends. I wanted a visualization that would show which cities had a lot of friendships between them.

It’s a magnificent effort and scores marks for beauty:

and for the amazing amount of data it carries within it.

Look at how the world of social media breaks down into clusters:

Europe is hard to subdivide: 

image

But Australia and New Zealand are almost three countries:

image

But of greatest interest to me is my own patch, Southeast Asia:

image

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are, perhaps unsurprisingly intimately connected:

image

North vs South

While the links between the southern  half of the region and Thailand and Indochina are by comparison quite weak:

image

Philippines stands alone

But the links between the Philippines and Hong Kong appear as strong as those between the Philippines and the southern half of Southeast Asia:

image

The other point to take into account is how spread out Facebook is in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is about as densely packed as Italy or England.

Facebook is not a phemenon limited to the country’s major cities (and this is true of the Philippines and Malaysia, of course.)

I’ll be updating my Facebook Asia Pacific data later this week.

(Thanks to the Guardian’s Simon Rogers.)

Facebook in Asia: Seeds of Decline?

Some thoughts after trawling through data I’m collecting on Facebook membership in selected Asia Pacific countries

Membership of Facebook in developed Asia Pacific territories declined for the first time in a year in September, suggesting, possibly, that interest in the social networking site in the region has peaked. The figures may also reveal insights on whether, in developing countries, a social networking site can break out of their middle class enclaves.

Facebook populations in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong all fell during the month, while those in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines all either grew only marginally or shrank somewhat. Hong Kong dropped by the largest margin—5.7%—while Thailand, alone among the countries under study, grew by more or less the same amount.

India and China, though included in the study, offer a more confusing picture. China’s data may be unreliable: after showing slow but steady growth until April, membership dropped precipitously before rising by nearly 140% in the past month. The reasons for these spikes and dips are unclear, but may have something to do with China’s limits on access to the service. In any case, the proportion of China’s real population remains negligible.

India’s too is negligible, although it did rise above 1% in July and and has been growing by between 400,000 and 1.7 million people per month. In most other countries that would be noteworthy.

But while the data overall remain questionable—these figures are from Facebook’s own statistics, but are not transparent, and are based on where members say they are from or in—there are some identifiable trends:

  • Australia and New Zealand seem to have not only hit a limit in terms of percentage of their overall population who are on Facebook (45% and 41% respectively), but may actually have begun to decline. After recording impressive growth up until May, membership plateaued for a month or two before falling in September. Google Trends graphs measuring traffic to facebook.com in these countries seem to confirm this. (Australia; New Zealand)
  • Hong Kong and Singapore seem to be in a similar boat. While more than half of Hong Kong was on Facebook in July, and nearly 49% of Singapore was on Facebook in August, both populations shrank in September. Only five months ago both territories were recording double digit growth.
  • Thailand is still growing, as is the Philippines. But both are from low bases: Less than 3% of Thailand began the year on Facebook, although that has now grown to 8%. The Philippines has risen from about 10% of the population to about 18% in the same period, but growth in both has dropped recently from earlier rates of up to 25% per month.
  • Indonesia is an interesting case. Its membership, too, was surging in the first half of the year—twice growing by a quarter in the space of a month—but has slowed considerably in the second half. Indeed, its population seems to have plateaued at about 11% of the overall population. That pretty much covers the country’s middle class, according to my calculations. (I wouldn’t want to labor the point, but based on the latest ADB figures, Indonesia is remarkable in the way that Facebook has extended beyond what would usually be considered the middle class limits of an Internet-based service. Those considered to be middle class or above by the ADB is about 11.6% of the population, which is exactly where Facebook’s Indonesia population currently stands. The Philippines—at 18.25%, about 5 percentage points behind the ADB’s calculation of the country’s middle class—has a little way to go, while Malaysia’s Facebook population has space to double in size. Of course, this has a lot to do with the growth of the mobile Internet, which is another topic in itself. )

Previous Facebook data posts:

Facebook in Asia: A Limit to Growth? – loose wire blog

Facebooks Asian Growth: Not Everywhere is North – loose wire blog

Facebook’s Asian Growth: Not Everywhere is North

I’ve seen some posts recently suggesting that Facebook is not doing well in Asia-Pacific. This, for example, from Forrester’s Reineke Reitsma:

For example, Facebook is struggling to gain ground in Asia Pacific:

With 58% of online adults accessing it, Orkut is the leading social platform in metropolitan India, while 27% of Japanese online adults use mixi; and in South Korea, Cyworld is most popular, attracting 63% of South Korean Internet users.

I won’t quarrel with her stats, but I’d suggest she’s missing a bigger picture: Facebook is growing at quite a clip in many Asian countries. My figures, based on Facebook data—which doesn’t include Japan and South Korea, admittedly–indicate that in 10 Asia-Pacific countries, Facebook membership has been growing at an average of nearly 9% per month for the past five months. That includes Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, China and India.

By far the biggest growth is in Southeast Asia, with Indonesia growing at 14% per month, Thailand 15%, Malaysia 12% and Philippines 13%.

India is growing at a similar rate, but with a far smaller proportion of population: still less than 1%. Thailand is less than 5%, but 10% of Indonesians now have a Facebook account, as do 23% of Malaysians, 14% of Filipinos and 42% of Singaporeans. Only Hong Kong beats that, with 44% of the population having a Facebook account.

Hong Kong and Singapore join other developed economies at reaching a critical mass—Australia 38%, New Zealand 36%—where growth has understandably tapered off to 5% per month or less.

So while it may well be true that Facebook ain’t big in North Asia, it’d be a mistake to assume that’s true of the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. Facebook is still the one to watch, and showing consistent growth this year in all 10 countries I’m monitoring.

(This updates my post back in January on Facebook stats.)

Podcast: Hotel Business Centers

Spending a week in the Philippines at one of Manila’s fancier hotels reminded me how far hotel business centers have to go to catch up with the rest of the leisure industry. A weekly column I recorded for the BBC World Service Business Daily (the Business Daily podcast is here.)

To listen to the podcast, click on the button below. To subscribe, click here.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741
East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541*
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141*
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

Technorati Tags: bbc, world service , business daily, podcast, jeremy wagstaff, loosewire, loose wire

Evoting? First Bad Omen

I’m in the Philippines to look at their preparations for an automated evoting election in May. This morning’s visit to the hotel’s business center wasn’t a good omen: no antivirus software on their computers.

This might not tell us very much about the potential for disaster in an election which is supposed to be entirely electronic, but the staff’s attitude might. When I told her that her computers weren’t running antivirus, she nodded and said she knew that, as if to say that was a luxury this $120 a night hotel couldn’t afford.

When I told her politely she should fix it because her computers would infect her guests’ drives and they wouldn’t be happy, she gave me one of those dismissive smiles that made it clear that wasn’t about about to happen and the input wasn’t welcome.

Unsurprisingly my thumb drive was infected with the Slogod.F worm which is described as “dangerous and self-propagates over a network connection”:

image

If the business center of a fancy Manila hotel is so cavalier about computer security, what, I wonder does it tell us about preparedness for this automated election? Hopefully this is a blip. Hopefully.

Facebook in Asia: A Limit to Growth?

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Here are the latest figures for Facebook populations in Asia-Pacific:

Country Users
Australia    7,395,200
New Zealand  1,279,260
Indonesia    15,254,060 
Singapore    1,763,340
Malaysia    4,155,880
Philippines    8,667,880
Thailand    2,000,320
Hong Kong 2,565,440
China    60,440
India 5,459,440

While there’s no doubt that Facebook is the premier social networking site in most Asia-Pacific countries, with subscription growing by about 20% in the past month in some countries, growth is tapering off in the developed economies of Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore.

The figures, gathered over the past six weeks from Facebook’s own data, suggest that once about a third of the population is on Facebook, there’s not much more room for growth.

image

A comparison of Facebook users between November and January shows growth of 2.6% in Australia, 7% in New Zealand, 4.7% in Hong Kong and 2% in Singapore.

 

Australia

Hong Kong

New Zealand

Singapore

Proportion of population on Facebook

34.6%

36.77%

30%

36.44%

Growth, Dec-Jan

2.6%

4.7%

7%

2%

The Emerging Four

Compare this with the four Southeast Asian countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, where despite impressive growth Facebook penetration remains relatively low:

 

Indonesia

Malaysia

Philippines

Thailand

Proportion of population on Facebook

6.68%

15.4%

9.6%

2.97%

Growth, Dec-Jan

24%

18.3%

20.2%

20.1%

India and China

In India and China, Facebook has yet to make much of a dent: China restricts access to the service, while in India users make up less than half a percent of the population. With 5.5 million users, Facebook’s India footprint is smaller than the Philippines.

Country observations

What growth there is among Facebookers in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong comes from younger users, particularly the under 18s.

In Singapore, with the highest penetration in the region, is growing only among those groups with a small pre-existing share of users: Females over the age of 35, for example.

In Malaysia growth is being driven by teens: the number of females and males between the age of 13 and 17 grew by a third between December and January.

Indonesia is seeing growth across the board, particularly among males (there are 3 million more males on Facebook than females in Indonesia.)

Thailand’s Facebook population is still relatively a small proportion of the country—less than 3%—but is showing impressive growth, especially among the under 25s.

Time to Give the Telephone Back to the Cellphone?

Was interviewing a guy intimately involved in the mobile phone industry the other day, and we were comparing the various features of our sophisticated smartphones, when he suddenly leaned over and said, “Off the record, but this is my favorite phone.” And he showed me this:


Nokia 1100, photo Mobile Phones UK

The Nokia 1100, according to Wikipedia, is the world’s best selling handset, having shifted 200 million units. It seems to cost about $20, often less, and has a battery life of about 400 hours. And, crucially for my friend, sports two important features: It makes and receives calls and SMS. Beyond that, in the words of Bryan Ferry, there’s nothing. (Well, actually there’s WAP, but who uses that?)

The point about the Nokia 1100 is that it’s a phone. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else (except a flashlight, if you press and hold the “c” key down (presumably “c” stands for torCh or flasChlight or “come into the light where I can see you, Mildred”.) It’s designed for conditions in developing countries — dustproof keyboard, non-slip sides — but for many of us that could describe an ordinary day in the office (dusty, slippery, in need of illumination).

“For email,” he said, “I use this,” waving a Nokia BlackBerry clone. “For phoning and SMS, I use my 1100.”

Clearly my interviewee friend is not alone. A glance at Mobile Phones UK’s page on the model, the phone has a sizeable fanclub, with comments from Romania, Pakistan, Iran, the Philippines, Argentina, UK, Zaire and Tanzania. (Typical comment: “I needed a simple, sharp looking, long life phone. I got it. I love it!”) Of course, there are some who aren’t happy, but with 200 million units out there, that’s not surprising.

I guess my worry is, and has been for a while: As phones get more sophisticated, when do they stop being phones? And if it takes you longer to make or receive a call (or an SMS) than it used to, at what point do we need to split the phone/SMS functionality from our smartphone and give it back to the likes of the 1100?

Piracy Helps Some Countries Grow

One can only imagine Bill Gates’ discomfort: Standing silently as the Romanian president told the world that pirated Microsoft software helped his country become what it is:

Pirated Microsoft Corp software helped Romania to build a vibrant technology industry, Romanian President Traian Basescu told the company’s co-founder Bill Gates on Thursday.

“Piracy,” Reuters quoted him as saying during a joint news conference to mark the opening of a Microsoft global technical center in the Romanian capital, “helped the young generation discover computers. It set off the development of the IT industry in Romania.” True, but as Reuters points out, 70 percent of software used in Romania is pirated and salesmen still visit office buildings in central Bucharest to sell pirated CDs and DVDs.

(And to be fair to the prez, he did actually call piracy “a bad thing”, according to another report by the AP, and said that “became in the end an investment in friendship toward Microsoft and Bill Gates, an investment in educating the young generation in Romania which created the Romanians’ friendship with the computer.”)

Actually I’ve long had the sneaking suspicion that (a) this is true. In places like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines etc, the impressive and attractively priced range of pirated software available raises local savvy and interest in computing. When you can buy 100 software titles for the price of a Coke, what’s not to like? And this brings me to (b): the likes Microsoft, I suspect, actually don’t mind this situation too much, or at least may not hate it as much as they say.

I’m not the first to suggest this: Microsoft knows it can’t sell legit copies of Windows or Office to every user in these places. So it gives away what it can, or at least sells at a steep discount, to youngsters. Businesses it tries to wrestle to the ground. The rest it writes off. Sure, it would be great if lots of people bought legit copies, but better that younger people are getting hooked on it, rather than to the opposition (Linux, Ubuntu etc.) One day they’ll pay.

I’ve often wondered, for example, whether folk like Adobe and Microsoft actually aren’t at cross purposes. Sure, they’re both members of the Business Software Alliance, but whereas Microsoft know that it’s better to get a nation hooked on Windows even if it’s on pirate copies than to crack down and plunge it into the hands of the Open Source brigade, for Adobe it’s a different story. No one is really going to buy a copy of Photoshop ($400-$700), so the idea of getting them hooked doesn’t really count. Better to crack down as hard as possible, so those few who really do need it cough up. Better 10 legit copies sold now than 100 possible sales later.

Is that why Bill didn’t say anything?