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More than half of Americans own a smartphone. Now what?

Boosting smartphone ownership for low income earners and the elderly could be tough, analyst says

June 5, 2013 03:04 PM ET

Computerworld - A majority of Americans -- about 56% -- now own a smartphone, according to Pew Research Center's latest survey released Wednesday.

The question now becomes: What will it take to raise that percentage even higher? Average prices are dropping globally, but that alone won't cause a sudden boost in smartphone adoption in the U.S., said Ramon Llamas, an IDC analyst.

The Pew survey involved 1,127 adults who were asked about smartphone ownership in April and May. Two years ago, in May 2011, just 35% of Americans owned a smartphone.

Pew found that a majority (55%) of Americans in their mid-40s through mid-50s are now smartphone owners. They have joined the high-ownership age categories of 18-24 (79%) , 25-34 (81%) and 35-44 (69%).

For older Americans, however, smartphone ownership is still low. Only 18% of those 65 and older have the devices, as do 39% of those between 55-64.

Incomes levels make a difference. While younger Americans of all income levels tend to own smartphones, older, wealthier Americans own more smartphones than their poorer counterparts.

More smartphone owners also have higher levels of education and income, Pew found. And higher income earners own more smartphones.

As for the breakdown by operating system, Android phones were owned by 28% of respondents, iPhones, by 25%, BlackBerry, by 4% and Windows, by 1%. (BlackBerry ownership is down from two years ago, when it was at 10% ownership.) Pew found that men more than women (31% to 26%) favor Android phones; while women more than men favor iPhones (26% to 24%).

Pew also found some race-based differences in smartphone ownership: 64% of blacks own smartphones, compared to 53% of whites and 60% of Hispanics. White smartphone owners narrowly favor iPhone over Android (27% to 26%), while blacks heavily favor Android over iPhone (42% to 16%). Hispanics narrowly favor Android devices over iPhones (27% to 26%).

Smartphones are seen by some groups as an affordable way to lessen the digital divide.

As smartphone ownership rises, smartphone prices are falling, according to research firm IDC. It found that average smartphone prices globally have dropped from $443 in 2011 to $372 this year, which would tend to favor more smartphone purchasing in emerging countries where average incomes are lower.

Could those trends eventually play out in the U.S.?

"It's obvious smartphone use is a generational thing and I don't think many people in their 60's and 70's will be adopting smartphones anytime soon," Llamas said. "And I don't think average prices coming down will necessarily boost adoption rates in the U.S. Lower phone prices are not a slam dunk. "

Llamas said there are already deals on smartphones that offer recent models for $100 or even free. But those deals usually require a service plan that can be costly for someone used to paying $35 a month for voice-only service on a feature phone. "Going from $35 to $100 a month for a smartphone plan is a big jolt," he said.

Carriers do work to offer service plans that are more affordable and can attract more smartphone users, he said. In a recent example, AT&T launched a subsidiary, Aio Wireless, in mid-May to provide monthly plans from $35 to $70 a month for unlimited talk, text and data. Phones range from $50 to $650, the latter for a iPhone 5.

Even so, smartphone adoption beyond existing demographic groups in the U.S. will come at a slower pace than in recent boom years, Llamas said.

This article, More than half of Americans own a smartphone. Now what?, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at Twitter @matthamblen or subscribe to Hamblen RSSMatt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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