You might be reading this very article on a smartphone, yet when was the last time you contemplated or considered its impact on the world around you. We aren’t talking strictly about the economic or environmental impact (though we will touch on those topics). Instead, we are talking about the overall impact on people’s lives. The world is transformed by the devices whether we know it or not. The fact that they became so popular, even necessary, so quickly is a testament to the usefulness of the devices and the ingenuity of the tech sector.
Yet the devil is in the details. We want you to learn more about what makes your smartphone what it is today. Additionally, we want you to know how your smartphone makes you and those around you who they are. If you don’t know, you might not be able to take full advantage of them. Conversely, others might be able to take advantage of you without the proper information. Whether in the workplace, at home, or in another context, smartphones have become their own industry and to some degree field of study.
While the history and impact of smartphones deserve books written on the topics, here is as much information as we can provide:
One of the biggest technology stories of the last two decades has been the widespread expansion of the use of the cell phone. Later on, this expanded to the smartphone, which truly transformed society as we knew it. Yet how did this occur, and at what rate? Were there spikes or was it a steady growth? These are some of the questions we want to answer for you.
It all had to start somewhere, and with smartphones, it probably started with the Simon Personal Communicator (SPC), first announced in 1992. It had a stylus-based touchscreen, and some of the features you might recognize in smartphones today. Other devices came with specific features beforehand. And while there are certainly debates over the topic, the SPC might be the first device we could recognize as being smartphone-like.
However, the SPC was hardly usable in a practical context (it had a one-hour battery life) and did not take the world by storm. Selling 50,000 units, there just wasn’t enough of a market at the time. Nonetheless, it was a step forward for the technology when cell phones were even then just being adopted.
What changed the smartphone world and made smartphones much smarter was internet access via the 3G network, which was launched properly in 2001. Data certainly wasn’t cheap, and the speeds were not what we are used to today, but people could send and receive emails and perform other basic tasks. Smartphones had arrived properly, and it was the Motorola A820 that was the vanguard, having the color screen and 3G capabilities that were necessary to take full advantage of this technology. From then on it was a constant progression, whether it was the first iPhone in 2007 or other flagships taking the lead. To put it into perspective, the first iPhone sold 1.39 million units, and looking at the chart below you can see later iterations did even better.
Of course, further developments were made rather quickly. Soon we got to the smartphones we have today. They pretty much only have touch screens and as much power and screen space as possible. They are hardly different from today’s tablets (though often more advanced). Yet they have effectively adopted the purpose of multiple other electronic devices.
And across the world the same developments occurred, if a few years behind in a few places. Not everyone can afford a $1000 flagship. Yet it isn’t necessary to access the internet, stream video, and connect with others. The flagships of today are the budget phones five years from now. Therefore, many people can afford to get at least a basic model (and often gain internet access by doing so). The globe is filled to the brim with smartphones. People want to get the most out of them and are doing so.
As mentioned, smartphones got better, as did the infrastructure. To put it into perspective. 3G speeds were capable of only downloading about 2Mbps, but 4G LTE (the most common today) is capable of 50 Mbps, which is more than enough to stream most content and download most files in a reasonable amount of time. While there are limits on data plans (though these are loosening over time), the shackles on smartphone use were unlocked.
With this, and even during the 3G era, there was the development of apps that made the most use of a smartphone's capabilities. Instagram became huge, alongside Snapchat, as a way to make the most of the smartphone’s camera. GPS tracking allowed for a whole host of different functions from driving to fitness (and some privacy concerns). Even new uses for the microphone became commonplace.
And to coincide with this the smartphones themselves gained additional capabilities and additional and better features. Cameras became better, and so could do more. Microphones and voice recognition technology became better, improving functionality and voice commands. BlueTooth advancements alone revolutionized what we could do with a smartphone, and turned their devices into hubs for our electronic lives. Most gadgets assume people have one in some form, and they’d be correct.
And now we are on the cusp of widespread 5G adoption. While 5G can mean different technologies depending on what you are looking at (and is the subject of several conspiracies), it is universally the next step forward for smartphones. There is a wave of releases that’s currently ongoing across the United States and beyond, and optimistically we could see speeds of 10 Gbps, which is more than anyone would need for standard smartphone usage at this moment in time. However, we can be certain we will see new use cases for that technology, and further growth of the smartphone market as a result.
Now it is obvious that practically every adult in the United States and most other Western countries has a cell phone of one sort or another. And they use them constantly for everything from traffic reports to managing a home expansion. People are using their phones more than ever, and more people around the world have smartphones than ever before.
Look at the penetration rate of smartphones in the United States over time:
The estimated rate for 2021 is 72.7%, and keep in mind that there are people (young children) who would have no reason to have a smartphone or be unable to use one.
Even globally the numbers tell us a lot. Huge leaps every year tell us that smartphones are becoming commonplace for the average person in even developing countries, and all those users spell untold possibilities. Hundreds of millions of people are getting a smartphone for the first time every year. How many times has such an adoption rate occurred in human history?
And while the statistics are sure to tell us important things, it’s also important to get testimonials from people to understand how they view smartphones in their own life. Even most of their detractors have given into their need, however, and gotten a smartphone. They’re necessary and a safety measure to most, and everyone from employers to family members expects everyone to have one.
And in developing countries where cell phones and smartphones are a few years behind the United States in terms of general infrastructure and proliferation, people are saying the phones are, in general, good for society and good for them. They see it as an economic opportunity, a way to keep in touch or connect with people around the world, and a gateway to the wealth of information online. There are dangers and risks, of course, but people see it as a tool for productivity and connection.
Yet for all that has occurred with smartphones and even though everyone around you seems to have one, there is still much left to do before every person on the planet has one. Some people simply do not want one, often for good reasons (more on those later). Some corners of the world are hard to get smartphones or smartphone infrastructure to, or it would be prohibitively expensive to do so.
Furthermore, in some cases, infrastructure for phones needs to continue to ensure better download rates or a more consistent signal. If people cannot completely rely on smartphones, they will be less inclined to use them. Furthermore, an area needs the power to use smartphones, and some degree of literacy and education (both general and technological) is required to make the most of them. Coincidentally the smartphone itself can help with this with the right apps and programs, and there are people around the world making the most of them and developing apps to help people learn new skills and disseminate vital information over the platforms.
How quickly can we expect future growth? It is hard to say. While we have plenty of data on previous years, the recent pandemic has made it somewhat difficult to determine where things are going. Manufacturing and infrastructure growth has surely slowed down in many regions due to it, and that means phones (or at least the latest models) might be harder to come by. App development in some aspects might experience a bit of a slowdown. There are other effects that we have only yet to see as well. And there will always be factors that no one can foresee, forcing everyone to adjust as needed.
We wouldn’t be talking about smartphones so much if they were just another simple device that hasn’t changed our lives too much. So, let’s take a look at some of the ways smartphones have changed our lives, the way we look at the world, and even society.
If you aren’t sure about something, you can just look it up online. Simple as that. Want to know the airspeed velocity of an unladen African Swallow? Your smartphone will tell you and likely reference a few jokes in the process. There is a website for everything, Wikipedia is an amazing, if not perfect, resource, and with some effort, you can probably find every single major academic paper and book ever written and read it right on your smartphone screen. While some research efforts might be better done on a larger screen and computer, it is all still accessible. The researchers and students of even 50 years ago would find a smartphone miraculous, and in many ways it is.
If you think about it, when was the last time you couldn’t find the answer to a question online? What type of question was it and how did you ask it? Even questions such as “what is the meaning of life?” will yield many answers, if not all ones you agree with. There is an endless discourse you can engage with, so long as people know how to.
And just like we have access to nearly all the information on the planet, we have access to practically anyone else with a smartphone or computer with an internet connection on Earth. While practically the number is much smaller (language barriers and other blocks), we can reach out to whatever services and experts we need. Perhaps it comes at a cost, but it is more than we ever had before, and there is a sense that the world is accessible to our fingertips. The idea of a global village is more popular than ever before, and with further developments and technologies, it will only become more real.
Furthermore, smartphones allow people to maintain long-distance friendships and relationships so much more easily than in the past. Even being able to email someone from a smartphone at any point is a huge change in how we communicate, and we have a bevy of other tools to do so, from video conferencing to Snapchat. People from smaller demographics or subgroups can connect online and form a community where otherwise they would not. To some people, smartphones are the one thing keeping them from isolation.
And people are still also looking for new ways to connect, either to strangers or people they know and often they seek novelty. Some apps on smartphones can provide that and find new friends or build stronger relationships as a result. And while some organizations and companies would hope to exploit or profit from those connections, that does not make them any less real.
Whether it is about health, politics, or some other subject entirely, there is plenty of misinformation online and accessible by your smartphone, and it is rarely labeled as such. Whether created by laziness, a chain of misinformation, or by malefactors, smartphones can access just as much, if not more, bad information than good, and even attempts to filter it out by users and search engines (if they are inclined to do so). And while “don’t believe everything you read online” is a common maxim, not everyone knows about it or follows it, or thinks they know better. All of this, as you can imagine, can lead to problems for people and society as a whole. And while smartphones are not necessarily the cause, and it’s more of a general internet problem, they did open the floodgates.
On a related note, scams related to smartphones rose alongside their increased numbers and complexity of them. Smartphones could seemingly do anything for some users, so scammers could tell easy lies to their victims.
Therefore, people have to be careful what they read online and especially on social media, where there are efforts to misinform the public, whether to destabilize the public or simply to manipulate them. While there have been efforts to cut down on misinformation as a result of more extreme actions based on it (some of Twitter’s high-profile bans, for example), it will be difficult, if not problematic in its own way, to get rid of all of it.
There is much profit to be made from smartphones. One look at the revenues taken in from popular app developers will tell you that. Furthermore, smartphones and the internet allow retailers to gain unprecedented access to customers, at practically no cost. Any retail company with an eCommerce presence can develop its own app and offer exclusive deals through it. The benefits of a well-run company social media account far outweigh the costs, and the income generated from a solid app far outweighs the development costs, so long as it is advertised and supported well. If customers want convenience, smartphones can offer it.
And eCommerce saw a boom not only from smartphones but also from the recent pandemic, with people being concerned about shopping or going into public (or simply being prohibited from doing so). Things such as food deliveries, take-out, and even grocery delivery saw new heights, and there is a sense that it won’t ever go back down to pre-pandemic levels, now that it has become the new norm. The data will take some years to iron out, but we suspect that there was a jump start to eCommerce and online services. We cannot repeat this enough: convenience is king, and smartphones and delivery services offer the ultimate convenience.
Take a look at the number of eCommerce sales (whether products or services) done by smartphones by revenues over the last few years:
Also, look at the revenue from apps over the last few years. Some of these numbers are more than the GDP of some countries. And it is only expected to grow as apps become better at converting customers, more useful apps are developed, and more people use smartphones more frequently.
And even single apps can bring in billions. Pokémon Go, perhaps one of the largest mobile games ever made, brought in about 917 million dollars in 2020 alone, and the game has been out for more than half a decade at this point.
The growth of development in some ways parallels the growth of the internet in its early years, or simply the growth of the user base of smartphones in general over the last decade. Whether there will be something of a bust that accompanied the .com bubble in recent history is yet to be seen, but it is also likely that at least some companies learned the lessons of the past, if not all.
If you want evidence on a more personal level, check how many purchases you made online in the last year or even the last month. It is probably more than your think, and if your economic situation hasn’t changed it’s probably more than years prior. It’s easier than ever to do, you probably don’t even need to input credit card information more than once, and you can get a better look at the products than ever before. While you can’t try on clothes on a smartphone (yet), eCommerce outlets have made returns easier than ever as well.
There might be some who criticize smartphones for taking jobs away from people who used to perform the tasks that smartphones now handle (or make much easier). Yet at the same time, we also have seen the growth of the app industry. Apps are responsible for hundreds of thousands of jobs, and depending on how you look at them are heavily responsible for portions of the gig economy as well. And whether you look at this as a bad thing, the truth is that smartphones have encouraged a great deal of economic activity that might not otherwise exist.
While most apps that are developed never see the light of day as far as the average consumer is concerned, the promise of becoming the next Uber or the like has investors trying to find the next new thing and developers and companies trying to make it. Given the massive returns on such an endeavor, or even getting bought out by a major tech giant after some level of success, it’s obvious why so many try.
And of course, like all products, there are plenty of jobs created in the design, manufacture, perfection, and marketing of the smartphones themselves. They do not appear out of nowhere, and teams of people worked on every smartphone ad you see every day. In fact, teams of people work on the ads you see on your smartphone, whether in apps or as part of the general operation. It is all a fascinating process and something you may want to look more into to get a better idea about the smartphone industry and what is important when you’re shopping for a phone.
There’s an app for everything and every need. If there is a type of device, there is likely a “smart” version of it, and that smart version can likely connect to your phone. Do you want to start your coffee and toast from bed? You might be able to do just that. And there’s no drone to deliver it to your bed yet, but we can imagine that’s only a matter of time.
This has taken place in both the home and the business world. Even being able to print documents wirelessly or share them from a smartphone has saved people and businesses more time and money than could be calculated. The meetings and calls that can be done on smartphones or connected to via them make scheduling so much easier. This is even when the participants are around the world. People are unchained from their desks and offices. The world can now be their office instead. They can be both where they want and where they need to be thanks to smartphones and the internet of things.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for smartphones, mind you. There are likely better uses than printing a few documents or delivering coffee to your bed by drone. Smartphones may be able to help the blind see, people get the education they need via a teaching method that works for them or performs any number of vital tasks. Eventually, they may be able to accurately identify dangerous substances or situations. Then, they can provide information to help accordingly. The human imagination is the only true limit at this point.
Yet not everything is perfect when it comes to smartphones. Many people don’t like how smartphones have taken over much of our lives and attention, and others don’t necessarily trust app developers or smartphone manufacturers. They can come from all sides of the aisle,
Some of the major complaints include:
This can all be a lot to take in. And there are many on the opposite side of these issues, saying they do not exist or are not as severe as the critics claim. The truth varies from issue to issue, but in most cases, the data is not conclusive yet. Smartphones have simply not been around long enough for us to fully comprehend their long-term effects. Smartphones change, and our relationships with them change. This makes matters and issues harder to measure.
Smartphones have an incredibly interesting history, and it is only just beginning. While we have some ideas on how matters might progress in the world of smartphones and the internet in general, there is no knowing what the future holds. It will be up to manufacturers, developers, and users alike to determine what is wanted, what is needed, and what is possible. Regardless, we hope you have learned more about the little device in your pocket and where it might be headed. We wish you the best with it and encourage you to learn more when possible.