Mary Meeker's Internet report: User growth slowing, but disruption full speed ahead

Leading technology analyst Mary Meeker takes her 20th look into the state of the Internet.

Mary Meeker, a partner at venture firm KIeiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB), and the Internet's most engaging prophet, reported in her 20th annual Internet trends report, that while the Internet is still growing, its growth rate is declining.

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Mary Meeker
Don't think for one second that the Internet still doesn't dominate the economy. Meeker said when she first started her report in 1995 the top 15 Internet companies by market capitalization were worth only $17 billion. Today, the top 15 are worth a cool $2.4 trillion.

Only one company was on the list in 1995 and 2015. Any guesses? No, not Yahoo, they were around in 1995, but they were still building up.

It's Apple. This just goes to show that you dismiss the value of hardware at your peril.

Still, the number of global Internet users increased by only 8 percent in 2014, compared to 10 percent in 2013 and 11 percent three years ago. Part of that is simply that Internet connectivity has saturated its market. In the United States, 84 percent of citizens are connected.

So, what are we using the net for today that's different from yesterday? Lots of things. For one, as any Netflix user can tell you, we're cutting the cord to conventional TV broadcasting. As important as that change is, another change in video may end up being more important: the rise of user created and curated video content.

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Nothing from Snapchat, the video-messaging app; Twitch, the online gaming TV network; or the most popular YouTube channels, may be challenging HBO Now and the Game of Thrones... yet. Give it time. Meeker has found that the young, who drive Internet technology innovation, are creating their own content at an ever increasing rate.

Globally, thanks to the rise of feature phones and smartphones, 73 percent of the population has some Internet access. That's a rather stunning 5.2-billion mobile devices in use today. I wouldn't short Apple, Samsung, or any of the other major smartphone vendors anytime this decade.

With this kind of market penetration, the smartphone growth rate - naturally enough - is also slowing down. That said, with a 23 percent growth rate in smartphones in 2014, there's still room for mobile device growth. The profitability will likely decline more quickly as smartphones look to developing countries, such as China, India, and Brazil for their customers.

We're also using our smartphones for more and more applications. For example, in the US, 84 percent of us use our smartphone in place of dedicated GPS devices when we're driving. We're also turning to Internet news on our smartphones, 84 percent, instead of the radio or television for breaking news. Twitter, in particular, is where people are likely to find out what's really happening right now rather than from a conventional news source.

Internet commerce, which now accounts for 9 percent of all US retail sales, still has room for growth. It's not just Amazon that's benefiting from this trend. Indeed, Alibaba/Taobao, with over $350 billion in sales, nearly tripled Amazon's approximately $120 billion sales in 2014.

The really interesting e-commerce move isn't in old style retail hard goods though. The new e-commerce growth is in "deliver it to me now" products and services such as Airbnb, Thumbtack, and Uber for smartphone-using urban millennials.

In turn, Meeker believes, this is powering the so-called sharing economy. While this drives down the cost of short term rentals and car fares, it simultaneously creates a part-time, freelance workforce. What does this mean for the economy as a whole? Meeker can also say that we're still in the early innings.

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The numbers though, compared to the old-fashioned idea of everyone having a 40 hours workweek, are striking. Meeker believes that 53 million Americans, 34 percent of the US workforce, are now working as freelancers.

Only 5 percent, or 3 million, of those "freelancers" are working at traditional freelance jobs such as writing. Most of them, 21 million, are working on "gigs," with another 12 million moonlighting on their full-time jobs to make ends meet. Another 9 million are keeping a roof over the head with multiple part-time or project-based jobs. Finally, 6 million are doing their best to keep food on the table working as temps.

On the plus side, the Internet social networking has made this kind of work much easier to find. It may not be ideal work, but at least, thanks to the Internet, it's doable.

The down side is that the average income from these services are far below the media US household income of $51,900. For example, an eBay seller will see an average gross of $3,000; a Thumbtack contractor will earn $8,000 a year; and even in New York City, a typical Airbnb host will earn only $7,700 a year.

The legal system also hasn't caught up with these new jobs and ways of making money. For example, Airbnb hosts must now collect San Francisco's 14 percent sales tax, while in other areas, Airbnb is still technically illegal.

Over time these new economic models are likely to become legal. StubHub, the online second-market for tickets, originally faced lawsuits for ticket-scalping in 2006. In 2014, StubHub is legal almost everywhere.

We're moving into a world where the Internet isn't just being used by nearly everyone. It's a world where we're using it all the time for all our work and play. What that will end up meaning in the long run is still a question that even't Mary Meeker can't answer.

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