The Amazingly Elusive Non-Smartphone Owner

on March 2, 2016

The non-smartphone owner — you know who I’m talking about. You may even know or be related to one of these people. You may even be one yourself. We spot them every now and then in the wild using these ancient devices and we are bewildered.

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In the US, roughly 15-18% of the mobile market still uses a feature phone. Personally, I find this fascinating and I’d like to share some insights we uncovered in our latest US smartphone market study.

I take nearly every opportunity to talk to a consumer who is doing something interesting whenever I spot them in public. Often these conversations happen in a line, at a gas station, while waiting for my wife outside the bathroom at a movie theater, etc. One thing I learn when talking with these non-smartphone folks is how it all boils down to them simply not wanting a smartphone. Sometimes this is out of principle, sometimes cost, sometimes they don’t want to learn something new or be bothered by technology. But I decided I’d ask questions specifically to those in our mainstream consumer research panel who say they don’t own a smartphone. Here are some of the things I uncovered.

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The top answer from the non-smartphone owners of our panel was “no interest in capabilities of a smartphone.” I added the “I like my basic cell phone” in order to capture sentiment. This mentality is exactly the one I encounter whenever I get a chance to interview someone who doesn’t own a smartphone. They simply aren’t interested. They understand the benefits, they don’t find them too hard to use, they don’t want to be bothered by the costs and, when it comes right down to it, they don’t believe they are worth it.

They skew older with 50% of them saying they were in the 60+ demographic. They skew slightly more male than female. Here is the really crazy part. Most non-smartphone owners in our panel have owned their current feature phone for 3-4 years and said they have no intention of replacing it for another 2-3 years. Does a Samsung or LG (the most popular brands owned by this cohort) last for 6 to 7 years? Remarkable if so.

Out of curiosity, I wanted to gauge what brand of smartphone they may lean toward should the dark day come when they can no longer get their precious feature phone. Samsung, Apple, Motorola, and LG were the top five answers with Samsung among the top with just over 50% of the responses. Interestingly, this cohort tends to lean more Android if they had to choose a smartphone and lean toward a similar brand of feature phone they previously had like Samsung or LG.

It intrigues me that price comes up as much as it does, given it seems US carriers are penalizing those who don’t yet have smartphones by charging them more in various ways on their bill than consumers who do have smartphones. We see this often on family plans where the kids with the smartphones pay less, either per line, or something else, than the parents with feature phones. So you would think at some point in time the cost issue goes away and it just becomes a principled stand against smartphones themselves.

Around the same time we did this study a few weeks ago, I also did one on the PC/Tablet market to gauge where the market is currently leaning with purchase plans for 2016. Those non-smartphone owners also skew toward Windows desktops from brands like Dell or HP. They purchased their current machine 5-6 years ago and paid less than $400 for it. Most don’t own a tablet of any kind, most don’t plan to and the small percentage who do plan on buying an iPad. Over 60% have no plans to buy a PC/laptop of any kind this year while 12% said it they would “possibly” buy a new PC this year and only 10% have definite plans to buy a new PC in 2016. And when they do, the majority of respondents said they plan to spend in the $400 range–again.

They spend most of their PC time doing social networking, a list of things that qualify under file management, and streaming videos. Nothing which requires a high-priced PC and, since they don’t have a smartphone or tablet, it is their only product to do such things.

The picture is clear, after both studies, who this type of customer is, what they own and don’t own, their primary use cases and behaviors, price bands, and sentiment toward the smartphone. While interesting, and rare, these customers are unique in many ways and represent a part of the market many of us who live and breath tech find hard to comprehend.

I want to leave you with this key understanding as to why I bring up this customer. In many of the consumer market and device usage studies we have conducted in the past year the same glaring evidence stands out. We can directly tie price paid for a PC/Smartphone/tablet to usage of the product. Simply, those who pay more for their computers use them more. For a consumer who is very price conscious like the non-smartphone owner, they have no intention on using the increased capabilities so see no need to pay for it. Similarly, those who buy lower end smartphones, PCs, and tablets are less engaged with the device and the surrounding ecosystem. This insight helps us understand the surrounding ecosystems, and engagement levels around hardware prices. Anyone in the software (apps) or services ecosystem needs to understand this dynamic as it relates to their business focus and customer priorities.