The cost of a smartphone in Saudi Arabia has declined rapidly in recent years. The arrival of affordable brands such as China’s InnJoo, which entered the market in late 2014 with a model priced at SR299 ($79.70), has made smartphone technology more accessible than ever. In July 2017 another Chinese firm, Huawei, pushed the iPhone into third place in the Kingdom’s mobile market, gaining a market share of 17.3%. Smartphones can now be found in the hands of citizens in nearly every income bracket, and the applications made accessible by the technology are playing an increasing role in their lives.
The popularity of smartphones in Saudi Arabia has provided media yet another channel to reach consumers: a report of the Kingdom’s smartphone users produced by On Device Research suggested that by the end of 2016, 70.5% of the population – nearly 20m people – owned a smartphone, and 91% of users used their device to access the internet on a weekly basis. Significantly, smartphones have rapidly overtaken more established technologies as the primary means by which Saudis access the internet. According to Global Media Insight, a UAE-based digital consultancy, the number of people accessing the web through laptops and desktops decreased by 17% in 2016, while the number of people going online via their smartphones rose by 19%. More Saudis now access media through their smartphones than any other channel, including television, on-demand TV, radio, newspapers and magazines. The commercial implications of this development are significant; as a result, establishing exactly what Saudi smartphone users are doing with their devices has become of paramount importance to a range of industries.
The country’s mobile trends can also be felt in the realm of public-private partnerships (PPPs), particularly with regard to the objectives of the Saudi Vision 2030 long-term development plan. “Saudi Arabia is among the top-30 countries worldwide for the upload of iOS applications. We are focusing on attracting talent for PPPs that are in line with Vision 2030, while putting the teams in the right position and environment to deliver innovative solutions,” Ayman Alfallaj, CEO of Thiqah Business Services, told OBG.
Saudis are much more than passive consumers of online content. Engaging with social media has emerged as a key smartphone activity: in 2016, 31% of the Kingdom’s population maintained an active social media account on their smartphone, according to Global Media Insight, and of the 11m active social media accounts in the Kingdom, around 10m are being accessed by mobile phones.
A youthful, tech-savvy population has helped propel the country to the top of the social media charts; the Kingdom has the highest per capita number of Twitter users in the world, and is also the biggest consumer of YouTube videos on a per capita basis. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and LinkedIn all have double-digit penetration rates, with Facebook’s rate of 25% making it the most popular social media app in the country. Messaging apps are also widely used, with nearly 9m residents – or 27% of the population – using the WhatsApp platform. Other popular messaging services include Facebook Messenger (which 20% of the population utilises), Skype (14%) and Snapchat (13%).
Saudi Arabia’s youth are also turning to their smart-phones in the classroom. A study of smartphone use at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University found that 27% of medical students used medical apps at least once per day, while 73% accessed them occasionally. The most popular reasons for going online were for looking up medical information (67.3%), course revision (62.4%) and preparing for presentations (34.5%). Medical students answering the survey revealed that they found medical apps helpful for clinical decision-making, assisting in differential diagnosis, allowing faster access to evidence-based medical practice and saving time.
With one of the highest levels of disposable income in the region, it is unsurprising that shopping via smartphones is playing an increasingly important role in commercial activity in the Kingdom. At the start of 2015 Google launched its Consumer Barometer, a tool that provides insight into the commercial behaviours of Saudi smartphone users. After conducting research in four categories – clothing and footwear, home furnishings, laptops and skincare – a December 2016 report showed that 79% of Saudis used their mobile device to research a laptop purchase, and 73% conducted mobile research for skincare products. The two other categories saw a percentage of mobile research within those boundaries, indicating a high level of mobile research for information and product comparison across all retail areas. Furthermore, 84% of survey respondents indicated that they viewed product videos to garner information.
When it came time for consumers to select a product, many moved from mobile research to mobile purchase. Again, the laptop and skincare categories held the top and bottom places in this regard, with 26% of respondents saying they bought a laptop via their mobile device, and 17% purchased skincare this way. However, skincare saw the most in-store purchases of the four categories surveyed, but the report states that mobile research led to higher in-store buys in all instances, letting companies know how important it is to provide product information via mobile websites or apps.
The ubiquity of smartphones in Saudi Arabia means that many of the processes that previously required human interaction or reference to traditional media are now being carried out online through personal devices. This is an accelerating trend, with one example of the rapid transfer of daily tasks to the mobile sphere being seen in the air transport sector. The 2016 Passenger IT Trends survey conducted by airline ICT specialist SITA, released in December that year, asked airline passengers to indicate current and intended use of mobile self-service technology. Results showed that around 4% of Saudi passengers used mobile self-service technology to check in for flights in 2016, while 20% of surveyed passengers planned to check in for flights using mobile services in 2017. Passengers also indicated that they would like to have more mobile interaction with their airlines, with 70% of respondents saying that they would like to receive mobile notifications regarding their baggage and 71% wishing to receive flight updates.
Interestingly, passengers indicated the highest levels of contentment with the segments of their journeys where mobile interaction plays the biggest role, such as flight booking, and the most dissatisfaction where mobile self-service options are limited, such as dealing with baggage and security screenings. Accordingly, SITA believes that mobile platforms could play an even larger role in the travel arena. “There is real opportunity for Saudi airports to provide more self-service options, particularly at traditional pain points such as baggage, security and passport control. The benefits of self-service technology at these key steps in the airport journey can significantly improve passenger satisfaction while helping airports and airlines manage more passengers, particularly during busy periods such as Hajj,” said Hani El Assaad, president of SITA Middle East, India and Africa, in December 2016. Both static and mobile technology are likely to play a key role in the ongoing expansion programme being carried out by the General Authority of Civil Aviation, which will see upgrades to the country’s 26 airports.
With their increasing use, a new generation of smartphones is likely to be enthusiastically received by the Kingdom’s young population. Research by Nielsen, a UK-based data company, has shown that criteria such as ease of use and screen size play a larger role in the smartphone purchasing decisions of Saudis than price. New features that the smartphone industry plans to incorporate in its devices will therefore be the deciding factors in the struggle for market share in the Kingdom. Foldable screens are one potential game changer, with both Lenovo and Samsung showcasing prototypes of foldable phones and stretchable displays in 2017. Under-screen fingerprint scanners are another technological advance which may represent a critical selling point in the increasingly security-conscious market. Samsung has revealed that it is working on the technology, while LG is known to be developing an invisible embedded solution of its own.
The enthusiastic uptake of visual social media such as Snapchat and Instagram suggests that the latest advances in the field of zoom lenses will play an important part in future smartphone selection in Saudi Arabia. Telephoto lenses have been available as smartphone accessories for some time, but the unwieldy, detachable devices remain something of a novelty for most users. A number of phone models, however, now incorporate 2x optical zoom lenses, including the iPhone X, Galaxy Note 8, OnePlus 5 and Oppo R11; in 2017 Oppo revealed it was working on 5x optical zoom. As manufacturers move towards higher magnification optical zooms and away from the lower quality digital zoom solution, this smartphone feature is likely to play a more salient role in buying decisions.
At the 2017 Google I/O event, the company’s annual developers conference, audience members were granted a first look at the augmented reality VPS indoor navigation technology expected to appear on Tango-equipped smartphones. VPS uses a mix of machine learning, computer vision and mapping coordinates to ascertain the user’s location and devise a route to their destination, even in areas where a data or GPS signal may be suboptimal. Whether or not it is Tango-supported, Google software that drives indoor mapping technology remains to be seen, but the concept is now a hot issue in the industry. With its mall-centric indoor shopping culture, Saudi Arabia represents an interesting market that may jump at the oppotunity to utilise VPS technology.
Shopping activities are also likely to benefit from the continued development of augmented reality applications. Samsung’s Bixby virtual assistant is already providing consumers with a new route to information regarding products and services, and Google Lens will soon offer an experience using advanced visual analysis to seach for product information. The possibilities inherent in this technology, of course, extend well beyond the merchandising arena: augmented reality technology can allow users to identify anything from public buildings to varieties of garden weeds, as well as calling up reviews of a restaurant passed on the street.
These technologies will make Saudi’s smartphone market an interesting space in the coming years. Besides the commercial implications of their arrival, there is also the question of how the growing industry of domestic tech start-ups will use new smartphone functionalities as a springboard for the development of their own products and services. “We have already reached the most critical stage in implementing e-services and a digital marketplace; it is now key to continue this transformation and extend it to new growing industries,” Safwan Al Khatib, managing director of Smart Link Solutions, told OBG. Indeed, smartphone utilisation is growing, and is expected to continue to expand as companies and institutions capitalise on the channel’s cost efficiencies and large reach.
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