In its first standalone measure of smartphone ownership, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project finds that two in five cell owners (42%) own a smartphone as of May 2011. Since 83% of Americans own some kind of mobile phone, this means that one-third of all American adults (35%) are smartphone owners.
Measuring smartphone adoption in the context of a telephone survey presents some practical challenges. Smartphones are typically defined as mobile phones with advanced capabilities such as internet access and the ability to download and install applications or “apps”. However, many cell owners—particularly casual users—are unsure of their phones’ capabilities, so measuring smartphone ownership in this way risked overestimating the adoption of this technology. Therefore our definition of a “smartphone user” includes anyone who falls into either or both of the following categories:
- One-third of cell owners (33%) say that their phone is a smartphone. Just over half (53%) say that their phone is not a smartphone, while the remaining 14% do not know if their phone is a smartphone or not.
- Two in five cell owners (39%) say that their phone operates on a smartphone platform common to the US market (these include the iPhone and Blackberry, as well as phones running the Android, Windows or Palm operating systems). One in ten (13%) do not know what type of phone they have, while the remaining responses included those that were not smartphones (i.e. “basic cell phone”, “cheapest phone” or “flip phone”) or that were not easily classified into a particular category (i.e. “Samsung”, “Nokia”, “Verizon phone” or “AT&T”).
Taken together, 42% of cell owners said yes to one or both of these questions and are classified as smartphone owners. The remaining 58% of cell owners have some kind of mobile phone other than a smartphone.
Age differences in smartphone adoption
Smartphone ownership is highest among Americans in their mid-twenties through mid-thirties, as fully 58% of 25-34 year olds own a smartphone. Smartphone ownership begins to tail off at around 45 years of age, before dropping dramatically at around age 65 (just one in ten seniors own a smartphone, and 44% do not have a cell phone of any kind).
Income differences in smartphone adoption
Smartphone ownership is highly correlated with household income. Respondents from the highest income cohort (those with an annual household income of $150,000 or more) are around three and a half times as likely as those in the lowest income group (with an annual household income of $10,000 or less) to own a smartphone: roughly three quarters of high-income earners do so, compared with one in five low-income earners.
A household income of $75,000 is the approximate point at which Americans are more likely to own a smartphone than not—more than half of Americans above this income level are smartphone owners, and cell phone ownership in general is near-ubiquitous (95% or more) past this point in the income distribution.
While smartphone ownership is a majority proposition among higher-income earners, those Americans with a household income of less than $30,000 per year primarily own more basic mobile phones. Indeed, members of this lower-income cohort are as likely to lack a cell phone entirely as they are to own a smartphone (22% own a smartphone, while 23% have no cell phone at all).
Although low-income Americans as a whole are relatively unlikely to own a smartphone, there is quite a bit of age variation within this group. Among 18-29 year olds earning less than $30,000 per year, 39% own a smartphone (on par with the national average) and just 8% have no cell phone at all. By contrast, fully 57% of low-income seniors do not own a cell phone, and smartphone adoption rates for this group are extremely low at just 4%.
Other factors correlated with smartphone ownership
For several years, Pew Internet research has found that African-Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to use their cell phones for non-voice applications such as using the internet, playing games, or accessing multimedia content. These differences extend to smartphone ownership as well, as 44% of black and Latino adults are smartphone owners, compared with 30% of whites.
Employment status is also closely linked with smartphone ownership. Nearly half of full-time employees (48%) have a smartphone of some kind, as do 38% of those who are employed part-time. Roughly one quarter of those who are not employed for pay (27%) have this type of device, while just 13% of retirees do so.
Smartphone owners and their technology assets
Smartphone users own a wide range of devices in addition to their phones. Eight in ten smartphone owners also own a laptop computer, and e-book readers and tablet computers are much more prevalent among smartphone owners than in the general population.
In their own words—how smartphone owners describe their phones
Along with asking about smartphone adoption and usage, we also included a question in our spring survey that asked cell phone owners to provide the one word that best describes how they feel about their phones. The smartphone owners we surveyed provided an enormous diversity of reactions to this question—the 662 responses we coded included 177 unique descriptors—so few words or phrases stuck out clearly from the pack. The three most common words were “good” (mentioned by 10% of smartphone owners), “great” and “convenient” (each mentioned by 7% of smartphone owners). Overall, 72% of smartphone owners used a positive word (such as “good”, “great”, “excellent” or “convenient”) to describe their phones, 16% used a negative description (such as “expensive” or “frustrated/frustrating”) and 12% offered a neutral word choice (such as “adequate”, “OK”, “fair” or “fine”).
How smartphone owners describe their phones (click for a larger version):