People are still opening their wallets for smartphones though, in today’s recession-racked economy, penny-pinching is a national pastime.
The average sales of BlackBerrys, iPhones and other smartphone models are rising fiercely and are estimated to increase by 25 percent this year, according to Gartner, a research business. Though the total cellphone sales are expected to fall, widely anticipated new models like the Palm Pre, which went on sale nationwide on Saturday, will help fuel that growth.
The smartphone surge, it seems, is a case of a trading-up trend in technology that is running strong enough to weather the downturn. And as is so often true when it comes to adoption of new technology, the smartphone story is as much about consumer sociology and psychology as it is about chips, bytes and bandwidth.
For a increasing number of the population, the social expectation is that one is nearly always connected and reachable almost instantly via e-mail. The smartphone, analysts say, is the instrument of that connectedness — and thus worth the cost, both as a communications tool and as a status symbol.
David E. Meyer, a professor of psychology at theUniversityofMichigansaid that, “The social norm is that you should respond within a couple of hours, if not immediately,” “If you don’t, it is assumed you are out to lunch mentally, out of it socially, or don’t like the person who sent the e-mail.”
The spread of those social assumptions may signal a technological crossover that echoes the proliferation of e-mail itself more than a decade ago. At some point in the early 1990s, it became socially unacceptable — at least for many people — to not have an e-mail address.
Smartphones are never cheap, particularly in tough economic times. The phones, even with routine discounts from wireless carriers, usually cost $100 to $300, while the data and calling service plans are typically $80 to $100 a month.
But recent smartphone converts are often people who count pennies, including many from the growing ranks of job seekers. Helene Rude ofBriarcliff Manor,N.Y., was laid off from her job as a business development manager at I.B.M. this year, when her unit, among others, was the target of cuts. When she left, Ms. Rude had to turn in her company notebook computer with its constant wireless connection.
So she got an iPhone instead, allowing her to be online no matter where she was, without having to lug a computer around. “I absolutely got it for the job search,”. “I don’t know if it’s really an expectation, but if another job candidate returns an e-mail message eight hours later, and you get back immediately with a message that says ‘Sent from my iPhone,’ I think it has to be a check box in your favor.” she said.
That is certainly the sort of message the wireless industry would like to reinforce. David Christopher, chief marketing officer at AT&T’s wireless division said that, “Smartphones are seen as essential to be productive in a mobile society.”
The company’s introduction of less business-oriented phones, with the general spread of mobile communication, explained the snowballing growth in BlackBerry users. They now number 25 million, nearly double the total a year ago and a tenfold increase in the last four years, James L. Balsillie, co-chief executive of Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, said.
The smartphone wave, industry analysts say, should continue to build. The room for gains is ample because, though rising, smartphone sales will still account for only a quarter of total cellphone shipments in theUnited Statesthis year. And along with the Palm Pre, a host of new smartphone handset and software offerings are coming this year, from Apple, R.I.M., Nokia, Microsoft, Google and others.
The industry’s goal is to win over more rank-and-file converts like Joseph Sexton ofSan Jose,Calif., who calls himself “not a gadget person.” Mr. Sexton, 45, decided to leave his job as a manager of a community health organization to travel and then look for other work, shortly before the financial crisis hit last fall.
He soon found himself looking for work in a tough market, and got a smartphone as a digital assistant in his search. Now he is hooked. “It allows me to be on top of things, and always connected, no matter where I am,” he said.
Mr. Sexton searches the Web, takes notes and sends e-mail with his iPhone. When he has trouble sleeping, he reaches for his smartphone to read news or check e-mail. In fact, Mr. Sexton said, he finds himself reading more online these days and buying fewer magazines.
“Basically, I’m walking around with a minicomputer in my pocket,” he said. “And it’s a part of me now, an appendage.”
Such a digital connection can have its downside. The perils of obsessive smartphone use have been well documented, including distracted driving and the stress of multitasking. CrackBerry, a term coined years ago, is telling.
The smartphone, said Mr. Meyer, a cognitive psychologist, can be seen as a digital “Skinner box,” a reference to the experiments of the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner in which rats were conditioned to press a lever repeatedly to get food pellets.
With the smartphone, he said, the stimuli are information feeds. “It can be powerfully reinforcing behavior,” he said. “But the key is to make sure this technology helps you carry out the tasks of daily life instead of interfering with them. It’s about balance and managing things.”