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What I learned about mobile usage in Indonesia

A couple of weeks ago I traveled to Jakarta to understand mobile (and especially mobile browser) usage in Indonesia. Indonesia is a huge country with a population of nearly 250 million people and a vast number of them are getting online. For many, smartphones are the first and only device they use for accessing the Internet. I wanted to share some of the things I learned interviewing a number of Indonesian smartphone users.

Phones for sale at a Lotte store in Jakarta.

I want to emphasize that this is my personal blog, and the opinions expressed here are mine, and not that of my employer.

Some of my key takeaways from the week...

Smartphones are central to users' lives
For everyone I interviewed, their smartphone was absolutely central to their life and was a major window to the outside world. For nearly all of these users, the smartphone is the first and only Internet-connected device they own, and they rely on their phones a great deal. Desktop or laptop Internet usage was limited to office workers or students, and even then the smartphone dominated.

I saw a wide range of phones, from top-of-the-line Samsung devices all the way down to 2-3 year old, low-end Androids running badly out-of-date software. Even so, people make heavy, heavy use of their phones: for messaging, games, watching YouTube, downloading music, taking and sharing pictures ... all of the same things that "we" (meaning for the sake of this article the relatively wealthy and well-connected citizens of, say, North America or Europe) use our phones for as well.

The US-centric mindset is that the phone is a "second screen" and that laptops, desktops, etc. are the main device that people use. Not so here. It's not just "mobile first", it's "mobile only".

Mobile data is cheap and connectivity nearly ubiquitous
I was surprised at how inexpensive mobile data was and how well connected the city and suburbs of Jakarta were. For 100,000 rupiah -- less than $8 -- I bought 2GB of data. A huge range of data pack options were available, but the typical price seems to be around $4 per GB. Now, for many Indonesians this is not as cheap as it sounds to me, but it's still quite affordable -- less than filling up a tank of gas for your motorbike.

Everyone I met used prepaid mobile data: Typically they would "top up" by buying a voucher or card at a kiosk -- with cash -- which would give them another couple of GB of data. The carrier sends an SMS when the quota is about to run out, and much like filling up on gas, you'd head to the kiosk and get another card. Various other approaches were used -- some people would SMS a person they knew, who would top up for them and then pay them by transferring money through their bank account. We didn't meet anyone who had an account with a mobile carrier and got billed regularly.

Some users had an "unlimited" data plan, but when they went over a certain quota the speed would drop down to something almost unbearable -- as bad as 16 Kbps in some cases.

Overall, though, network performance was quite good, and I used my phone extensively on Telkomsel's network with few problems, even out in the boonies. The folks we interviewed generally did not express problems with connectivity -- only when they would travel into more rural areas was this a problem. Check out OpenSignalMap's coverage map of Telkomsel for example -- it's pretty broad.

Very few users used WiFi with any regularity on their phones. Sometimes they would join a WiFi hotspot at work or while out shopping, but cellular data seemed to be the typical way to connect.

The main use cases are messaging, social networking, and search, in that order
Everyone I met used Blackberry Messenger and WhatsApp extensively. Many users were on Facebook as well, and other social networking and messaging apps such as Line, Path, and Twitter were often mentioned. For whatever reason, BBM (on Android) is hugely popular here although I got the sense that younger folks were gravitating towards WhatsApp. Users would have dozens or even hundreds of BBM and WhatsApp contacts, and many of them were getting frequent chat notifications from these apps during our interviews. Facebook seems to be tremendously popular as well.

We often hear that "for many users in emerging markets, Facebook is the Internet". I didn't get that sense at all; people know about the Internet and the web, for sure, and Facebook is just another app for them (although an important one).

After messaging and social networking, searching for content on the Web is pretty important. Google is widely used and highly regarded -- everyone calls it "Mbah Google" meaning the wise old grandfather who knows all. Browsers were mostly used for web searches and not much else -- indeed, none of the folks I interviewed had much if any knowledge about things like bookmarks, tabs, Incognito mode, or anything else in the browser.

"Death of the Web" is greatly exaggerated
There is often a lot of hand-wringing about native apps spelling the "death" of the web. Apps are popular, sure, but they don't seem to replace any of the use cases for the Web on mobile, at least for these users. I wouldn't expect -- or even want -- mobile websites to replace WhatsApp or Facebook. That seems like a losing proposition to me, and I don't fully understand the drive to make mobile websites more "like apps". Despite the popularity of apps, the Web, and Web search, still play a huge role on mobile devices for these users -- I don't see that going away any time soon.

Nobody can update anything, because their storage is full
Nearly everyone I met had maxed out the storage on their phones -- typically 8GB or more -- presumably downloading pictures, videos, games, and so forth. (It seems that WhatsApp automatically stores all images downloaded from a conversation into the local device, which might be a major contributor, given its popularity here.) As a result, nobody was able to update their apps, even when Chrome (for example) reminds them to do so. We saw a lot of out-of-date app versions being used, and people told us they have been unable to update due to storage constraints. (I was expecting people to tell me they didn't update apps because of data quota limits, but that didn't seem to be a major issue.) I don't know what can be done about this -- some way to automatically zap old WhatsApp images or something -- but it obviously creates problems for users when they are using buggy or insecure versions of things.

The future looks bright
Despite all of the challenges I saw, I came away with an extremely optimistic outlook for mobile users in Indonesia. I was impressed with how pervasive smartphones and mobile network connectivity were. I was glad to see that data cost was not a huge barrier to use -- apart from YouTube, people seemed able to purchase enough mobile data for their typical needs. Devices and connectivity are only going to get better and more affordable. It's a really exciting time to be working in this space.


  1. My daughter's shiny new Dell 7840 tablet came with a miserly 8GB of Flash storage, which she promptly filled with videos. I configured Google's cloud backups (not on by default) and deleted the videos once backed up (now perfectly visible with the Google Photos app, but not with the built-in Dell Gallery app). I had to do all of that before I could install any updates.

    Android M adds the ability to "adopt" a microSD card and, presumably via striping, give you a grand-unified large filesystem. That's something my daughter really needs because not every app is smart enough to be able to direct its storage needs to the SD card, but then you get a new problem: how do I *upgrade* that SD card? I presumably can't just pull it out and push in a bigger one. This is somewhere that Google's cloud backup system, for Android M, might hopefully have some dedicated support. (If you wanted to be clever, you could rig up something with a USB memory stick over the phone's USB port, so that you don't need a ton of carrier data. That would let any kiosk phone dude do the upgrade in place.)

    Otherwise, I suppose the answer is quotas. The Google Play Store and Android OS update mechanism need to hog enough storage for themselves to ensure that updates are always possible.

    1. Or, now that I think of it, you could extend the APK signature standard to some kind of Merkel tree thing, then you could demand-page them in rather than downloading first in their entirety. You'd still need some amount of reserved space...

    2. Or, now that I think of it, you could extend the APK signature standard to some kind of Merkel tree thing, then you could demand-page them in rather than downloading first in their entirety. You'd still need some amount of reserved space...

    3. Or, now that I think of it, you could extend the APK signature standard to some kind of Merkel tree thing, then you could demand-page them in rather than downloading first in their entirety. You'd still need some amount of reserved space...

    4. I like how your reply was erasure coded with N+2 redundancy.

  2. Great article - the observations you make would probably apply to vast areas of Asia. It should be understood that Carrier centric plans/phones etc is *not* the norm for most of the world, it is only in 'advanced' nations where they are able to effectively shape the market. Fully three quarters of the world uses a pre-pay model.
    Only addition to the Indonesian 'programs' being used would be to add in Path - it is gaining traction.

    A clue to how 'they' are mobile, is that they never graduated from landlines to mobile like many countries. There was never a pervasive copper network. It was straight to mobile. A fact which you confirm.

  3. Thanks for the nice article and insight of mobile usage in Indonesia, especially the cheap data and non reliant to data subscriptions I found interesting.

  4. Indonesia is remarkably diverse -- is Jakarta a good indication of use in Lombok, Flores, or Aceh?

    1. No doubt there is a tremendous amount of diversity, and of course my sample size is small and limited to Jakarta. Caveat emptor!

  5. ^ why are you trolling? Great article Matt.

  6. I think your observations are generally true in Asia. Case in point: Internet speed has grown at Moore's law rates over the past decade in India. I remember upgrading from a 28.8 kbps dial-up connection to a 256 kbps ADSL around 2005. Now I'm on a 50 mbps FTTH that costs about 20$ a month. Almost everyone I know has at least a 15 mbps home connection, and mobile connectivity can taken for granted. Mobile data (LTE) costs about 4$/GB, and it's almost entirely a pre-pay market. A couple of years ago, buying "top-up" cards with cash was popular, but now it's bought online via the carrier's website.

  7. some devices sold here usually has their storage split up into 2 partition, one for system storage and one for data storage. I had to repartion my old phone (Lenovo S890) to get more space in my system partition because of that

    usually the system partition is just so small that you end up with not enough storage warning when installing new app or updating apps even though the data storage is still empty.

  8. Cool post Matt; thanks for sharing.

    I feel differently about moblie apps v. the mobile web. Given that we seemed to be succeeding in moving a lot of native desktop and laptop apps online, which has a lot of advantages, the explosion of native smartphone apps seems like a fairly serious regression to me. In addition, all of that developer energy is diverted away from building effective mobile websites.

    I can't quite figure why developers seem to like writing apps so much. Clearly the interactive web programming model emerged a bit accidentally, so perhaps that's one problem? And of course browsers are missing a lot of features and capabilities provided to native apps, although that's just a function of engineering. Anyway: as someone who's very invested in the mobile web I'd love to hear your thoughts on the rise of apps—perhaps in a separate post?


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