Smartphones might not rule our lives just yet, but there is an argument to make for the idea. Most people have one, and they are effectively essential for work, school, and other parts of daily life. People just assume you have one and might not bother with other methods of contacting you if you don't.
Yet are they truly this popular worldwide, and why do we think this is the case? What can we expect in terms of growth over the coming years? These are all critical questions we need to be asking, and below we hope to provide some of the answers for you.
Cell phones have been around for quite a while, and the transition to smartphones has, in some cases, been gradual. Therefore, defining precisely what a smartphone is has become an important point.
For our purposes, we will consider a smartphone what most people consider a smartphone, a mobile device with calling and texting capabilities that can access the internet. Most but not all will have a touchscreen and camera, with certain features such as Bluetooth functionality. A smartphone without calling capabilities would be a PDA (a dying breed), and without the smart features related to internet access, we would just have a cell phone.
In nearly all cases, smartphones sold today are run by an operating system (realistically either Android or iOS, as the graphic below will show) that allows for the use of additional apps. App functions vary immensely and are only limited by the functionalities of phones and the stated operating systems.
In future years, the smartphone definition might tighten as more features become standard, but budgets and expanding markets might keep matters open on the issue. Ultimately, the industry will decide what is and is not a smartphone and if there will even be any alternatives.
Before moving onto speculation and considering why the numbers are the way they are, let us first look at how many smartphones are used today:
Note that while the number of smartphones active in the world is still going up, the growth rate is likely not going to stay the same forever, for reasons that we will be talking about later. Try also to note that as more devices become multi-functional, people might use fewer devices in general, much like how people no longer need pagers, PDAs, or similar. This could, in some ways, affect how we think about the IoT. Why carry around three devices or have them in the house when one (albeit more advanced and expensive) device will do the trick?
While it may seem like everyone and their uncle has a smartphone where you live, is it just a regional thing? Here are some stats on the number of smartphones by country:
Overall, looking at matters by country still matters and will tell us where future efforts will be focused. It will also tell us where the infrastructure and interest in smartphones (and related cultural phenomenon) lies. Yet as the world becomes more globalized, these statistics will matter less than the total smartphone penetration rate and the total number of users worldwide.
Here are a few other notes and figures that might help you gain more context about how many people have smartphones and how they are used:
One of the more interesting trends over the last decade is people not even having a computer or laptop of their own, instead simply electing to have a smartphone. It takes care of all their messaging, computing, and technological needs, and they succeed at doing so, perhaps with the help of a few peripherals.
Even when people have both, for many purposes, people will simply default to their smartphones. The vast majority of social media traffic worldwide happens on mobile devices, with some social media networks not even really having a desktop app or presence.
With eCommerce, more people are using their smartphones to buy things, book trips, etc., than ever before. People still prefer to browse on their phones and buy on their desktops, but the trend is shifting.
How long do we think it might be until computers themselves are replaced by phones for non-enthusiast users, with larger screens available for plugging in when we want to use a monitor and other peripherals. If this becomes the case, more advanced smartphones can take over some of the demands for tablets, desktops, and other devices.
Though mostly still a promise or a rumor to most consumers, 5G might also change the tables when it comes to people using smartphones. While there might be some apprehension about 5G based on rumors and speculation, these are all unfounded, and the rollout continues mostly as planned, with some likely delays due to the recent pandemic. In areas with 5G, people with unlimited data plans might just rely on that data plan much more since the advantage of regular WiFi or a home connection is less pronounced.
At first, we will only see more advanced rollouts in places effectively designated as test areas or the largest cities possible. Fine-tuning will occur, likely over a few years. Meanwhile, smartphones that can take advantage of the new developments will be made and become the norm over time, perhaps driving growth.
In talking about all these possibilities, we have already touched upon the theme of future growth. The numbers show us is all but an absolute certainty. Yet what might contribute to this growth, and to what extent might it occur?
A few things to look forward to are:
There are, of course, other driving forces and things behind the scenes that are harder to understand or measure. Still, if we watch even just a few of the factors or trends listed above, we can see what smartphone manufacturers, app developers, and anyone else involved in the industry can see. Even if there are already many smartphones out in the world, there are still more to come, and by meeting regional needs, there is a lot of money to be made and a lot of lives to potentially improve.
While we will undoubtedly see continued growth over the coming years, there are reasons to believe that the growth will, in some ways, stall a bit and perhaps (although this is extremely unlikely) even reverse. Here are a few main arguments for this possibility:
Market Saturation: After a certain point, there will not be any new markets left for smartphones anymore, at least not at the level seen when smartphones were first on the scene. For a while, there was massive growth in Asian countries such as China after smartphones were first introduced. Naturally, there was the first wave of adoption in Western countries, but seeing that again is effectively just a dream for manufacturers.
With all this said, there is still growth yet to occur as some smartphone models become more affordable and society in all corners of the world becomes more dependent on them. Eventually, however, everyone who wants a smartphone or can afford one will have one, at which point growth will not be so easy. Increasing sales will require either a greater turnover rate or innovations that mean many people will feel the absolute need to upgrade immediately, without regard to their current device's remaining lifespan.
Increasing Costs: Smartphones are not easy to develop, produce, market, and support. There is a reason not every tech company on earth is in on the industry (though quite a few have tried, to various degrees of success). Today, a top model can run to over a thousand dollars, and that is not even counting the costly custom models that one cannot even find in most stores. As prices go up, people might try harder to make each smartphone last longer or hand down devices, making sales (though perhaps not the total user base) go down.
Similarly, events could occur which could make the manufacturing of smartphones more difficult or expensive. Perhaps the rare metals or materials used are harder to come by. Maybe one of the major manufacturers has a serious incident or logistics failure which causes shortages. Whatever the case, we cannot discount these possibilities. While in most cases the market will correct itself, higher prices will lead to lower sales, perhaps with people holding onto their current phones for a bit longer or keeping potential adopters out of the market.
Technological Limitations: Have we reached the limitations of what smartphones can do yet or what power we can put inside a handheld device? Not in the least, and we might not for some time. Yet, there might be some slowdowns, and the pressure to upgrade models for any practical reason (as opposed to marketing reasons) may decrease over time. After all, unless people can see a difference, they might not find a slight camera upgrade to be much of an upgrade. More processing power might not mean much to consumers if smartphone speed is not noticeably affected.
Regulations or Restrictions: Smartphones have not been without controversy over the years, and while they have proliferated unimpeded for quite some time, there is no guarantee that a government body (in any number of countries) might restrict how smartphones are produced, used, or what features they can have. This, in turn, might affect adoption rates, phone sales, or other similar metrics.
Health Concerns: There is no evidence to suggest that smartphones are inherently dangerous, at least to one's physical health, and there are several studies on the effects happening at any one time. However, smartphones and cell phone technology have only been around for so long, and long-term effects might show themselves in the future.
If this is the case, we will likely see a significant impact on smartphone regulations and sales. It is unlikely that people will give them up entirely no matter the circumstances, given how dependent people are on them and the fact that people accept the risks with cars. Limited usage might be a possibility, and people may seek replacements in the form of other devices or technologies.
Privacy Concerns or Scandals: There is a lot of information stored in your smartphone. While much of it is stored behind password-protected accounts, and you likely require two-factor authentication to get into most sensitive information that does not mean that everyone follows these suggestions strictly. On a larger scale, a failure could mean the information of millions to hundreds of millions of people gets leaked or become vulnerable, to which there would be consequences.
That said, the potential dangers have been known for some time, and most people have accepted them for the sake of convenience. It is far more likely that specific apps will cause a privacy or data leak scandal than smartphones themselves, and while those apps may not survive the problem, smartphones themselves will. Even with smartphone manufacturers, people could pause and make the public avoid specific models, but likely at most might change habits about smartphone usage in general.
Any of the above possibilities may not occur to any significant degree, yet it is essential to know the possibilities. Like any market, smartphones are subject to fluctuation, and fluctuation to such a vital part of our lives is an alarming possibility. Long-term shortages or price increases might have implications beyond just the smartphone market and might affect our careers or how we live our lives, so staying on top of this news is important.
Smartphones clearly are not going anywhere. They will adapt, and we will see even more uses for them than we have for today. This will lead to more people starting to use them, at one rate or another, and their proliferation will only cement itself in the countries where it seems everyone has one. Watching these numbers grow over the years can be interesting in its own right. Still, we also hope that we have provided you the context needed to better understand where things are going and why smartphones have become so dominant worldwide.
You do not need to constantly watch smartphone numbers, but keep some of these facts in mind the next time you notice yourself or someone else take out one of these revolutionary devices.