For the first time, majority of Americans own smartphones, Pew survey says

Published: Thursday, June 6 2013 11:08 p.m. MDT

Laura Jackman, who lives in Corinne, Utah, shows off her new smartphone.

Laura Jackman

Laura Jackman is part of a new majority of Americans: She now owns a smartphone.

She says, however, that she would have been happy with a plain old cellphone, except her new job helped pay for the new device two weeks ago. The way she feels about her phone falls right in line with a newly released study on smartphone ownership by Pew Research Center: For the first time, a majority of adult Americans (56 percent) own smartphones.

Pew began looking at smartphone use in May 2011, according to Aaron Smith, a senior researcher with Pew's Internet and American Life Project. Back then, 48 percent of people owned regular cellphones and 17 percent didn't even own a mobile phone. Slightly more than one-third of adult Americans (35 percent) owned a smartphone — meaning a phone that is basically a small computer.

Now it is 35 percent of adult Americans that own a regular cellphone. The percentage of people without cellphones has cut in half to 9 percent.

Smith says there are some interesting things going on when you look at smartphone ownership through the lens of age and income.

An elite toy

If someone is between the ages of 18 and 29, chances are pretty good they have a smartphone regardless of their income. For those who make more than $75,000 a year, 90 percent own a smartphone. Of those who earn less than $30,000 a year, 77 percent own a smartphone.

So income doesn't have much of an impact on whether a young person is going to get a smartphone. If a person is older, however, income becomes a factor.

For example, if a person is between the ages of 50 to 64 and makes less than $30,000 a year, only 22 percent own a smartphone. If a person in that age group makes more than $75,000 a year, 72 percent will own a smartphone.

Smith says older Americans are looking at smartphones differently than younger Americans. "For people who are (older), the device is great if you can afford it, but it maybe doesn't rank quite as high on the list of priorities in their lives," he says. "But if you look at (younger people) a smartphone is like electricity or a car. It is the thing that, regardless of your income, you figure out a way to get it."

Smith says part of the reason for the difference is the way younger and older people access their information and communicate. Younger people use smartphones as their primary way to access information. Older people still use landlines and other means such as desktop computers to communicate and share things online.

There also are differences in the breadth of economic responsibilities between younger and older people, Smith says.

"It says something about the financial obligations those different age groups have," Smith says, "but also where this communications device fits within the relative order of priorities."

Jackman bought her smartphone when she felt she could afford it. Although she still doesn't prioritize it as a necessity, she is warming up to it. She contrasts it with what she carried on a plane not too long ago. "I carried a camera, iPod, Kindle, portable DVD player and a phone on the plane," she says. "Now, I really enjoy carrying only one thing."

Which smartphone?

Jackman opted for an iPhone 5 because, she says, "That's what my kids have."

The Pew survey also tracks which particular devices people are using. Back in 2011, the most popular smartphone platform was Android phones; 15 percent of cellphone owners used that platform. Blackberry phones and iPhones were tied at 10 percent each and Windows-based phones had 2 percent of cellphone users. Still, 63 of cellphone users chose to use regular cellphones.

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