The Amazingly Elusive Non-Smartphone Owner

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.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

166 thoughts on “The Amazingly Elusive Non-Smartphone Owner”

  1. I keep being amazed at the number of issues non-techies can have with basic smartphone functionality, and the number of subtle gotchas.
    Dumbphones are easy: push a button, something happens Always the same thing. On Android the Phone app remembers its state, so an errant sideswipe moves from the bare dialer to the contact list; in the Contact app from favorites to complete list… exiting and re-launching the app doesn’t always take you back to the default page. I’ve had to hunt for apps that offer shortcuts or homescreen widgets to the specific app page the user expects.
    I’ve had a similar issue with my mom’s tablet: the browser never closes tabs, I’ve found 50-ish open tabs, mostly to the same handful of sites. Couldn’t find a “close tabs on exit/unload” setting. Opera does have a Close all tabs command, but I ended up telling her to reboot her tablet weekly.
    Configuring a smartphone for a technoramus is still too much work.

    So, the price of the device is the smaller of the problems. The UI issues, weird touch panel issues (my mom is on a medication that messes up… something… with her skin: she can’t get her fingerprints taken, and touch panels struggle. Plus, long nails, lack of tactile feedback..)… device size, and daily charging requirement trump price. Also, it’s about the price of the service, not device: in France, a dumbphone contract is $1.5/mo (2hr outgoing talk, unlimited incoming and in/out SMS/MMS, with a marginal 50MB of data, maybe enough for a single messaging app). Meaningfully data-rich contracts start around $15, so cost more over a single year than a low-end device.

    What worked to switch reluctant users to smartphones, back when I was crazy enough to want to force the issue, was finding a killer app. Typically, GPS or Camera (that sale is made much harder by the lack of a camera button), sometimes a single chat app or a game. Luckily, GPS, camera and most games don’t require a data connection, so no data contract to pay for.

    No-data smartphones are surprisingly useful. I used a data-less smartphone for years back when the Mobile Web and ecosystem were barely nascent and I just wanted to consolidate my NEC 8201A (=Tandy 100), phone, Palm, MP3/AVI player and books in a single device, even had a script to hoover up news websites’ front pages+ 1 level down.

    Even today, I got wifi about 90% of the time (home/work, plus my ISP sets up a dedicated “roaming wifi” channel on each of their ADSL boxes, so whenever I’m close to a home with the same ISP, I got wifi; plus you can informally trade credentials to get access to other ISPs ^^), and when out of Wifi coverage I’m also out of data coverage about half the time, so a data contract is just for convenience, really, I must have enough entertainment stored on my phone for long plain/train/car/foot trips anyway.

    In the end, I think 1st-world users that haven’t yet converted are not worth the effort. Lots of weird struggles, and little revenue to expect either for carriers or Google/FB et al.

    1. What would be interesting, in thinking what the characterization “technoramus” implies, is how much technology elsewhere is of use by these people. To what extent is it because they get their technology fix from other devices? Or is it a total lifestyle choice (whether based on cost or other values)? Some people are deliberately tech simplified at home because this is/was their work. Some people don’t want to bring work home. Or is this really because smartphones the “too complex, new fangled gizmo”?


      1. Seniors around me who don’t use smartphones are either afraid of their complexity or “wrongly” dismissive of their capabilities, it’s never a fully informed choice. But those are 80yo middle-class seniors, not 60yo working-class.

        I think the most interesting thing about them is they’re the last segment from which we can glean insight about some of the Next Billion’s issues and motivators. Younger generations already have had their skills honed and expectations set.

  2. “We spot them every now and then in the wild using these ancient devices and we are bewildered”

    I nearly bailed on the article right here, with the infuriating condescending tone. Fortunately, you (mostly) dropped the condescension in the rest of the article.

    I would still be among the non-smartphone owning cohort, except for two and a half reasons: I wanted a good quality camera phone, and I wanted to be able to use an app that was not available on my ipad (the Bitlit “get a discounted ebook for paper books you already own” app, this was before they rebranded themselves as Shelfie). I also kind of wanted my phone to be as easy to use as my ipad, but that was just gadget lust and wasn’t really a solid reason by itself.

    Good quality camera featurephones are few and far between, and there didn’t seem to be a model that had been popular enough to be easily findable used for cheap on Ebay. But I didn’t really need a cameraphone. I was also a bit frustrated dealing with the user-hostile UI on every featurephone I had ever owned (a few no-name motorolas, then some Razrs, all bought used, then a Blu Tank, NOS (new old stock) purchased specifically for its month long standby time when I got tired of trying to find Razr batteries that weren’t half dead). But that wasn’t reason enough to pay serious money (ie, more than about $40) for a better phone. My inability to run Bitlit’s ebook finder program on my ipad was a niggling annoyance, but again, no big deal in and of itself.

    All these low-grade “well darn” annoyances added together eventually became enough to cause me to decide that my next phone was going to be a smartphone, even though that meant moving from paying disposable amounts of money ($30-ish) to paying serious money ($100+) for a phone. That was, I don’t know, sometime after we got our first ipads in 2011.

    I looked into getting an android or a lumia. Various things pulled me to an iphone instead. One, I just didn’t want to spend the huge amount of time necessary to do the research to find out which models had decent cameras, then find a decent camera model that had actually sold well enough that I could find used or NOS ones for sale cheap. With an Iphone, there was no research involved: find a good deal on a 4 or 4s, done. Two, we already had ipads, and I had learned how to use IOS already. Three, I had started to learn about the extraordinary used (and “for parts/repair”) market for Apple kit. If I bought a lumia or android, when the time came to replace it (ie, when it stopped working, when the battery dies, or when I eventually drop it on concrete and shatter the screen), the old one would be essentially worthless. If I bought an iphone, it would still be worth a significant fraction of its purchase price even after it broke.

    Iphone prices stayed too high for my wallet until, in the spring of 2014 I reached a point where I decided I was going to run up some extra credit card debt in order to treat myself. One of the things I bought that summer was a used iphone 4 (locked to my carrier) for $200.

    Its battery is pretty weak — instead of 14 days on standby when new, it manages about 7. That’s with very infrequent phone calls, semi-frequent pushing the lock button to see the time, and taking the occasional picture. Buying it a new battery isn’t happening anytime soon because the only reputable battery store I can find* wants to charge ridiculous shipping even to get it to my friends in the US who act as my American mail drop. Lately I’ve been extending the standby time by leaving it in airplane mode when I’m at home, which seems to double or more than double the battery life. It has the same featurephone pay-as-you-go sim card that I’ve had since 2003 (cut down to size by the nice man at the corner phone store). Barring Fido having a change of heart and starting to offer a mixed bucket of minutes and data for $10 a month, instead of forcing you to buy $10 of minutes and $10 of data, I will never buy a data plan for it.

    (this is already pretty damn long, so I will do an actual response to points in your article in a separate comment.)

    * I’ve been badly burned by cheap knock off laptop batteries on Ebay which go completely dead within a year, so I only buy batteries from vendors who I can trust.

    1. Wasn’t meant to be condescending.. More that for us who grew up with technology it is really hard to fathom. Since I’m in consumer research/behavioural analysis I can put myself in consumers shoes who have this mentality but at the same time I find the mindset truly fascinating. Someday all we will have are generations who grew up with tech on this earth and things are really going to get crazy.

      1. I grew up with tech. I have many expensive computers and computing devices.

        I have an iPad, numerous iPods, and a home theater system fit for a showroom.

        I do not, will not own a cellphone of any kind.

        I do not, will not do Facebook or any other privacy reducing time wasters.

        I consider your point of view to be “hard to fathom.”

        1. Yep, heard this in the other comments of the study from this group. Many took the time to write out their privacy concerns as a reason. Luckily this iPhone situation with the FBI is proving the identity protection Apple has in place with their products 😉

          1. Glad your respondents felt strongly enough to take the time.

            But my feelings go beyond that. I cannot for the life of me comprehend why everyone thinks it is OK to be “connected” during every waking minute of their life. The future you envision with people who have known nothing other than “tech-connectedness” scares the living sh*t out me. We are creating a world of vacuous idiots with the attention span of goldfish.

            That alienated, inhuman, attention-addled, addiction (yes, addiction – kids who have their phones taken away display classic withdrawal symptoms) may seem just ducky to you tech pundit types, but I cannot “fathom” it.

          2. Could be worse, they could be reactionaries unable to see the value in being able to send and receive calls at all time, get the info needed when it’s needed, and generally have permanent access to a pocket computer.

            Sure, most of the usage can be, at best, classified as “entertainment”, and we both agree that “social” is the new low of entertainment, not even scripted and produced like reality TV is. Still, same as most of what is printed on paper, shown on TV, said on the radio is useless babble but those are valuable tools, so are mobile phones.

          3. Humanity is in one of transition but progress moves us forward and the future will be better because of it. The 40 and under crowd is not “stuck” in their devices all day. Millenials travel more, do more, and are more adventurous than many generations. Particularly those in other countries. The kind of stuff I see in the world is a lot less grim than what you painted.

            There is a lot of optimism and technology helps that. There are going to be rotten examples for sure, but progress makes things better. There is no time historically in the world I’d rather go back to, yet every period was riddled with problems. We are humans, predictable ones at that.

            A lot more good is happening because of technology than bad. But there are learning curves and that’s always ben the case.

          4. Yes. If you choose to ignore all evidence to the contrary, progress is making “things better.”

          5. pick a time you’d like to go back to 🙂 slavery, poor medical science, lack of women rights, etc… Keep moving forward 🙂

          6. Don’t confuse “Human progress” with tech progress. Tech progress, of which you write, has made little real difference to human progress, on the whole.

            If one chooses to ignore the supply side issues (wholesale rape of the land to obtain rare earth metals, exploitation of workers to produce the devices, etc.); then goes on to ignore the disposal side (mountains of tech waste dumped on third world nations or dumped in the oceans offshore of failed nation states, e.g. Somalia); then when one goes on to ignore the decay of social skills, manners, and the other her societal ails I listed…..

            Sure, we can now visualize the propagation of a tweet! Sure, we can mine data better than our caveman ancestors. La-de-Ef’n-da.

            Your “pick a time” dodge does not persuade.

          7. When we look at emerging markets and how tech is helping in developing areas raise folks out of poverty, encourage jobs, help farmers grow better crops, more efficient at buying and selling, provide an education to rural inhabits who would never get a chance, let doctors examine people in villages remotely… etc…

            I appreciate a pessimistic view as much as anyone but you can’t turn a blind eye to the good it’s doing also.. Now to your point of what’s happening to the earth. Fine, point acknowledged. That doesn’t mean there aren’t or will not be more sustainable ways of doing these things going forward.

            Now personally I don’t feel its helpful to not take action in the circumstances you outlined. So for example, I’m trying to raise my kids differently amongst this problem in the hopes we set a better example and help kids understand necessary balance in the digital age. What this signifies, is the world is not going to go back to a pre-tech world, so we may as well work to do a better job educating about how to live in it. Like I said.. Transition..

          8. I appreciate your response. Despite my antagonism, you have kept up the optimism and done so with civility.

            I, too, am familiar with the anecdotal examples of ‘positives’ these western devices may temporarily impart in developing nations.

            But the canaries have been screaming their heads off in the coal mines. These screams are dismissed as pessimism too easily.

            That new shiny device you get every twelve months comes at an enormous cost. Very little of it is positive.

            And our kids are getting dumber.

          9. And my simple response is.. Be the change you want to see in the world. 🙂

          10. “Pointing it out is great but getting involved even better.”

            Everything you say is true.

            But you don’t get from ‘smartphones help in humanitarian aid’ to ‘my privileged 12-year-old daughter needs to have a new smartphone every 18-to-24 months” using that argument.

            Nor are my criticisms weakened if I’m not personally laying myself out in front of the bulldozers.

            As you say, pointing it out is “great.”

            You have a tech column. Perhaps you should rethink your cavalier attitude about gross consumerism and use it to take up the cause? Or are you going to simply prove my point about how easy it is to dismiss it all as mere pessimism?

          11. Nothing about my sentiment, nor my attitude toward this affirms gross consumerism so I don’t know where you are getting that idea from. I’m simply saying technology has a benefit. The follow on observation is we are not going backwards so let’s address the matters at hand. Parental education, learning new disciplines, etc. are all apart of this moving forward. Rejecting it is not helpful. Pointing out and helping to educate on the pros as well as what to be aware/weary of is helpful.

            Perhaps you missed my “raising kids in the digital era” where I encouraged a smarter more disciplined view of how we teach our kids responsibility in the digital era. I speak on this frequently as well at internal company summits and events on eduction, etc. So I’m doing my part.

          12. “My inability to relate to the non-smartphone owning mindset is due to objective value technology has added to my life.”

            OK. I have no problem with that. It has a different nuance from the article headline and your expression of “bewilderment.” But it is a valid statement.

            I apologize that you believe I was attacking you, or your lifestyle. It is great to hear that you are making an effort to educate kids.

            And without going into any personal details, let’s just say I do my part, as well. Sure, as an American, I have been guilty of some gross consumerism. But I have an awareness now, and I guide my life by it. And I certainly am not bewildered when someone tells me they haven’t bought something yet.

            So, you should not be astonished or resentful or “bewildered” when one of the methods for being the “change you want to see in the world” is to reject the idea of buying into the disposable gadget herd.

            There are multiple, valid reasons to reject the smartphone culture. Among them: coughing up copious amounts of personal data to who-knows-what (good god: ); the de-humanizing studidification of the folks who can’t stop pawing at their device; the real costs of pushing out these disposable devices by the hundreds of millions. This list is not exhaustive.

            It is an unfortunate fact that the cheaper the smartphone, the more toxic the smartphone.

            Thank you for helping on the one hand. Please help on the others. Please advise your clients to build and sell better, longer-lasting devices and to prioritize REAL methods to dispose of them—ways that don’t cause yet more exploitation. And maybe address the real impacts of cheap/disposable $50 smartphones in one of your future columns.

            See? I’m doing my part again.

          13. One of those technology assisted under 40 folks rear-ended me earlier this year. It was a clear day in the early afternoon on a straight road with little traffic and she just drove into me. Caused $5,500 in damage. We have laws against using phones while driving but they aren’t enforced so a lot of people ignore them.

          14. On that one – you certainly talk like a Millenial but have no idea of what you speak of.

            Sorry, but I that entire ideal of travel more, do more etc. Puh-leeze. My kids are Millenials. One weeps that they also believe this.

          15. Actually I have quite a bit of quantitative data on millennial sentiment across a range of issues and opinions across Internet, world, etc.. So I have the data to back up my opinion 😉

          16. And SAT tests have had to be dumbed down to accommodate the reduced skills of these kids.

      2. I am one of those that fall within the demographic, the working 60+ techie. While I find smart phones to be fabulous tools, they also have one weakness that makes them unattractive to own: they aren’t as durable as my feature phone.

        My job and my avocation takes me to places where the average lifetime of a smart phone would be measured in weeks or months. The Samsung flip-phone I have now is darned near bulletproof, has survived conditions that kills smart phones in short order and is, quite frankly, easier to stow away while not taking up a lot of space. After over two years of replacing one damaged or destroyed smart phone after another, I went back to the flip phone and it’s managed to survive for almost 2 and a half years now. I still have an Android tablet (Lenovo) that I use for smart phone-like applications, but I don’t carry it with me like the flip phone.

        My son (in his 20’s) also carries the same flip phone as I after his last smart phone was damaged beyond repair at the farm. He had that smart phone for all of 4 months before it became useful only as a damaged paperweight. His flip phone has survived mishaps that would have killed his smart phone.

        So some of the decision to stay with feature phones has to do with survivability and not some of the reasons stated in the article or those commenting. I realize the percentage of people like me or my son is probably minuscule, but we’re still there nonetheless.

        Once someone makes a smart phone as rugged and tough as my flip phone, I’ll buy it. Until then, there’s no reason for me to do so.

  3. I have worked in technology for 30 years, am surrounded by engineers, and I just got my first cell phone: a Tracfone flip phone for $20 and I just buy minutes. I get laughs when I pull out my flip phone around the engineers and with mock amazement show them the camera it has.

    The reason I have not yet bought a smartphone is strictly cost. I can buy minutes for a few dollars a month vs spending $100 a month for a smartphone. I have an iPad and an iMac that I use daily, so I’m not afraid of technology. For me it’s almost a challenge. How long can I resist the smartphone? Do I REALLY need one? Is it worth all that money? Somehow we were able to survive without them in the past and now it’s just assumed that you need one.

    1. If you don’t need or want to be reachable when you are on the go, then there’s really no reason to have a mobile phone. It turns out that lots of people enjoy being reachable by their friends and family when they are on the go, and lots of other people enjoy having a phone that’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a landline (if you go prepaid and don’t buy a lot of minutes, that is). Between those two use cases, mobiles have taken over the world. (In my case, since my spouse is disabled, I *need* to be reachable so if there is an emergency I can abort plans and head home to help her. If not for that need, I’d still be getting by with only a landline)

      The only other reason to own a mobile phone, as best I can tell, seems to be that more and more web sites are using SMS messaging as one of the fallback ways of validating your identity.

      If you have an ipad that’s convenient to carry around with you, there’s really no reason to spend money on a smartphone as well.

      1. >> If you don’t need or want to be reachable when you are on the go
        >> then ther’s really no reason to have a mobile phone.

        duh… what about when I want to make a call… something has happened and I want to initiate a call.. that’s why I carry a cell phone… not to be
        reached when I’m doing something that’s more important to me.

    2. You could get a smartphone with no data contract. Same functionality as with a data contract, 90% of the time (home, work…). Rather cheap as an MP3 player + game station.

    3. You can get a smartphone for a lot less than $100/month. Upgraded my wife to a iPhone 5S with Virgin Mobile for $150. They offered a $25/month plan that is fine for light users — she’s on $35. That’s solo — no family plan needed. There are cheaper plans from other vendors based on android. Sounds like you have a fun hobby intentionally avoiding smartphones though — harmless fun.

  4. I am a hard core tech nerd (software developer with CS degree/PC gamer, tech enthusiast, amateur tech analyst).

    But I have a cheap feature phone.

    I also hate wasting money, and it is a lot more expensive both up front and monthly for a smart phone.

    I have unlimited evenings/weekends for voice/text/long distance for $25/month(plus more daily minutes than I ever use and all calling features: callerID/Voicemail/etc), and the phone was negligible cost item, 3 years ago. For three years my bill has never exceeded $25/month. In Canada a Smartphone bill could easily exceed $100/month. So In three years I potentially saved:
    $75*36 = $2700.

    I also have Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 Tablet(not a cheap model BTW). So I know what I am missing from my phone and IMO, it isn’t really that much. I think much smart phone obsession is driven by social media obsession, which I don’t have.

    1. One way to use a metered voice/text plan is to use Google Hangouts for voice calls and messaging over WiFi. This assumes that you have WiFi generally available where you want to make or take phone calls.

    2. I have a family plan with 5 phones and a tablet on Verizon, sharing 16GB of data, and pay $260, or about $52 per line per month. That’s a lot less than $100/mo. T-Mobile offers a monthly plan for $50 as well.

          1. That’s a bit of telco PR though.

            If you look at the areas that actually get mobile coverage ( ), that’s less than a fifth of Canada’s area, more like a tenth but let’s be generous… that drives Canada’s pop density (3.4ppl /km² x5 = 17 ppl/lm²) to very European levels, twice that of Norway which also has extreme climate, and 50% coverage, and much lower prices.

          2. You picked the national carrier with the poorest coverage. Also, Europe’s population density is well over 70/km^2, which is still a lot higher than 17.

            That said, there is no doubt Canada’s carriers gouge consumers and, along with our government, stifle competition.

          3. Sorry, I picked Roger at random ‘coz that’s what my brother is on and I thought it was one of the bigger ones. Which one should I have picked ?

            I specifically compared to Norway because both density and climate
            are close. Finland and Sweden probably work too (density 16 and 20 resp, didn’t check coverage). I think there’d be issues with using Russia.

        1. “You pay the equivalent of a car payment for your phones, and you think you have a good deal?”

          I don’t know, Defedor, phones are a pretty big deal. I recently read an article that said that smartphones were the new automobile — the must have gadget of our times. We’ve all driven by shacks that had nice cars parked outside and we’ve all driven by homes that don’t have air conditional and a variety of other modern niceties but they most definitely have a car (and maybe three or four cars).

          The smartphone is an always on us, always working device. Most people use phones to fill in any times when we would have otherwise been waiting for something to do. That’s why everybody has their heads in their phones when they’re waiting in line, or sitting on a bus or whenever they have an idea moment.

          For many, smartphone have far surpassed TVs as their must-have device because they can use their phones as a mobile TV and do so very much more.

          I think smartphones are a very big deal and paying $260 a month is not that unusual (I pay more for 5 lines) and not that much of an extravagance.

    3. Social media obsession – agree completely. This is a generational thing, in that when I grew up there was a single land line phone in the house. Oh. My. GOD! My parents actually allowed me out of the house… no way to be in instant contact…

      I am only sort of kidding. However not growing up with the need to be instantly connected to the rest of the world makes me think ‘Meh’ about the entire topic.

  5. “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.”

    Definitely this. Being able to access maps while I am out would be nice, but absolutely not worth the extra $10 a month (minimum) it would cost to have data. The cost of the phone is a pretty big stopper all by itself, but that’s a one time thing. The cost of data is huge, especially if you don’t actually *need* any of the benefits it brings.

    “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.”

    I don’t see anything crazy about only replacing a device when it breaks. Nor do I see anything crazy about phones lasting 5 years or more — if that’s what you meant, then maybe you didn’t ask your panel the right questions. Such as “how much do you use your phone” and “how often do you drop your phone.”

    I don’t use my phone much, so they don’t come out of my pocket very often, so they doesn’t break, so they last a long time (every phone I’ve ever killed, died by accidentally being put in the washing machine because I forgot to empty my pockets, which doesn’t happen very often at all).

    My mother lives on her phone, and before she got her iphone and its ruggedized otterbox case, she would need to get a new featurephone every year or so because they kept getting dropped and broken (now it’s the otterbox that gets broken, which is an improvement). This despite the fact that she would always buy the “rugged” feature phones — they just weren’t up to the abuse she put them to, with constant use on a farm and with her chronic clumsiness. So maybe there’s a strong correlation between light phone use and having phones live a long time.

    Or maybe there’s people who drop their stuff a lot (and so need phones replaced very often, and so they’ve upgraded to a smartphone by now because that’s what’s sold these days), and people who don’t, and who thus are still using their old phones.

    On the gripping hand, featurephones can be much, much more durable and rugged than smartphones. Drop a smartphone on concrete, you’ve got a broken screen. Drop a featurephone on concrete, and you’ve got a scuffed phone.

    “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.”

    Family plans aren’t comparable to individual plans. Did you actually ascertain if these featurephone owners were paying more for their phones than smartphone owners with comparable talk/SMS usage and comparable plans? Because every time I’ve checked prices on individual plans, which I’ve done repeatedly since my father died and I’ve become my mother’s tech shopper, smartphone plans cost *more* because you’re paying for data on top of talk and text.

    Just checked, and Verizon basic phone plans are still cheaper than their smartphone plans, unless you go postpaid and need more than 700 minutes of talk time a month ($25/mo), in which case you have to buy their 1gb/month smartphone plan ($50/mo). Prepaid is a much better deal ($30/mo unlimited minutes, $15/mo for 300 minutes), unless you live in the boonies like my mother, in which case the restrictions on roaming for prepaid accounts mean postpaid is your only viable option. Life is too short for me to check the other major carriers, but it’s almost certainly the same story with them.

    “So you would think at some point in time the cost issue goes away and
    it just becomes a principled stand against smartphones themselves.”

    But your anecdote about featurephones being more expensive on family plans doesn’t mean what you think it does, so the cost issue doesn’t go away, so really what is the point of this comment, aside from lack of understanding impeding your ability to grok the people you are trying to study, so you throw up your hands and say “they’re just mulishly stubborn.”

    Not stubborn. Maybe some are old and resistant to change (fyi I’m 45), but mostly we’re just frugal.

    1. Most Maps apps work offline. I know for certain the Nokia HERE and Google Maps do. Just download the area while you’re on wifi, I know I DLed the whole France a while back, 4 Megs I think.

      Agreed with phone longevity. And PC’s. Smartphone are in their early accelerated evolution phase, but things are calming down already.

      As for durability, it’ because people choose jewel smartphones instead of rugged ones. There are MIL-spec smartphones out there, they’re just not sexy in looks nor specs. Even the relatively mainstream Samsung S6 Active bears a lot of mistreatments, if that’s not enough there’s the Kyocera Brigadier

      Agreed for pricing: maybe it varies by country, but in France dumbphone contracts are way cheaper than smartphones contracts. Actually high data caps are the expensive utem, you can get unlimited voice/texts for $10-ish ($2-ish for 2hrs talk+unlimited texts); same +50GB LTE is $25-ish.

  6. Lots of commenters seem to have issues mostly with contract costs. Get a smartphone but no data contract ! You’ll have wifi 90% of the time anyway, and smartphones do work as dumbphones too.

    1. Your suggestion is a good one, but the same people who are late to the smartphone game are the same people who don’t know how to tweak their phone in order to obtain savings. In other words, they’ve never had any interest in this particular “game” so they don’t know all the rules and the nuances of the game. This is true for all late adopters, not just those who haven’t yet moved to smartphones.

  7. Based on the description of people who professed no interest in a smart phone, I think “I’m not interested” might really be a face-saving way of saying “It’s too expensive”.

    1. I know a lot of pretty well off older people who don’t have smartphones (my parents and their friends). They see it as one more complexity in their life that just isn’t needed when they have a computer which they use 5-10% of and can do everything a smartphone can. I think a lot of people don’t want one more thing that has to be taken care of and they have to lean on their tech-savvy friends and family to help them with. Which is the genius of Apple — their smartphone products are about as easy to use as is plausible.

      1. Ease of use and logic seems to be it. Friends of mine who had pc’s for years bought their first ipad (my original 2010 model) with no prompting or input from me. In the last four years they’ve both got new iPads, iPhones (6+,6s+) and now a 13″ rMBP and dumped their constantly under repair windows laptops. Several other of my older friends have also moved to iPads and later, iPhones, after trouble with flaky androids. My mother though is completely useless with computers and most electronic equipment and never seems to able to answer or call with her candy bar Nokia, never mind see or respond to text.

  8. I would guess that implicit in the answers is not just money, but more what’s important ways to spend their _time_. Some would rather spend their time on real/analogue activities than virtual/computer related functions. A pocket computing device adds (at least perceptually) unnecessary complication, especially at a particular time in ones life (since you say over 50% skew 60+). For those who are older I would think it is more a value proposition than an actual ‘expense”. Of course this is not true of everyone over 60, but we are looking at a particular group.

    Even as I get older, I value seeing people in person more than I enjoy (and I do enjoy) “social networking”. And when I am with someone in person, I almost always ignore my smartphone (my family has their own unique notifiers, so I will always interrupt for them).

    Computers. for all their pluses, have always added a layer of complexity when sometimes all you want is something more straight forward.

    Just some thoughts,

  9. “…it seems US carriers are penalizing those who don’t yet have smartphones by charging them more in various ways”

    I assume this is at least a little bit objectively true, and it points to an important side-effect of your observation that people who pay more, use their devices more.

    Part of using a device more is noting the benefit of what you’re getting, versus what you’re paying. Non-smartphone users are economizing on their time—which is exactly as valuable to a low-income person as a high-income one—and the carriers are, as always, pricing what the (less-aware) traffic will bear.

    This is a bit of a vicious cycle. Casual users have to pay more for the amount of benefit they use, leading them to use it less, and accordingly be less familiar with the benefits of using it more. Likely ends up costing them less, but for much less value received. At least they can enjoy IRL time.

    1. If it’s true that dumbphone contracts cost more than smartphones’, it’s very US-specific.
      Apparently “Consumer Cellular” (ATT network) have a $15 plan for 250 minutes + 0 data, I’m doubtful smartphone contracts can beat that.,2817,2375644,00.asp

      Edit: Republic Wireless (Sprint network) is $10 for unlimited voice+texts,

          1. Apparently adding a phone to a Verizon plan is $20, so more than the standalone voice-only plan. ( ). It does get unlimited voice+texts, but for light users, it’s still $2 more than the GreatCall plan.
            Somewhere else Verizon says $25 for a “basic phone” with 700 minutes + unlim. texts

            Fees and whatnot might switch that around though, apparently the US are rife with surprise costs.

  10. Ben I have a feature phone because I only want to make and receive calls with it. If you think it’s fascinating I guess that’s your deal.

    1. how closely do you fit the profile of other tech/ownership spending I profiled? For some their smartphone is their personal computer and for others it is not. But being in the younger demographic we know which habits are now being formed by the masses around smartphones. Our value perception is simply different.

  11. The comment section is at least as interesting as the article itself. To add my two cents:

    I always struggle with situations when devices are crowding each other out. Having a landline, mobile phone, small tablet, MacBook Air, office laptop and desktop PC; I can perfectly understand why people would want to leave a few strategic gaps in such a line up.

    Also, not having a smart phone is one of these self imposed limitations (like trying to buy good wine under $10 or giving something up for lent) that people take delight in. Being Spartan and frugal by refraining from having yet another expensive time-eating gadget with monthly fixed charges has some personal benefits.

    That said, after many years without smart phone, I’m quite happy with mine as it improves the quality of my daily commute considerably.

    1. “The comment section is at least as interesting as the article itself.”

      One of the things I love about Techpinions is that the readership is so knowledgeable. It may not speak well of me as a writer, but I often think the comments to my articles are just as informative and sometimes more informative than the article that prompted them!

  12. I don’t think that the cost comparison is valid for those that don’t use voice, text and data that much. You can get GoPhone service from AT&T for $100/year and this gives you 400 minutes/texts for the year. Smartphone plans generally require unlimited talk/text and a data plan. I currently pay $65/month for an iPhone with Verizon with a corporate discount and a $10 promotional discount and it gives me 2 GB of data per month.

    I could get a Verizon flip-phone and pay $15/month for 300 minutes/texts per month and then pair it with an iPad with Verizon prepaid service for $17.50/month for 2 GB. I generally make about 5-10 minutes of calls per month and use about 25 mb of data per month so I don’t need 2 GB of data but that’s their minimum offering. I don’t need unlimited calls/texts either.

    My wife asked me why smartphone service costs so much when you could do the same thing with a feature phone and an iPad. She thought that the reason was technological. I told her they charge more because they can. Most people prefer one small device to do it all than having to carry around multiple devices.

    If you’re willing to go with AT&T GoPhone service, you could spend $8.33/month and pair it with the iPad Mini for $26/month for 2 GB of data. You just need a fairly big pocket. Most of my data use on the iPhone is via WiFi as I have it in so many places. What would be really nice is a metered voice/text plan for smartphones with maybe 100 mb of data – that would be fine for me. But there’s very little profit in it for the carriers.

    If you want inexpensive service for a low-usage model, the feature phone is definitely the way to go. You could take the SIM card from the feature phone and put it in a smartphone. We do this with three of our family phones and service is $8.33/month for those phones with no data. The carriers, strictly speaking, don’t allow this but we’ve been doing it for several years and they haven’t disconnected us.

    1. I think that many will know that the way to get wealthy is to create streams of income that require little effort and then use those streams of income to create more streams of income. The customer is on the opposite side of that balance. So I look to minimize repeating expenses and maximize repeating income. I happen to own a lot of Verizon shares that have done well so the cost of service doesn’t really hurt but it would still be more efficient to align costs with usage.

      You asked about profile for other uses – I’m a software engineer with a CS degree and have been working in software development since 1981. I have lots of tech toys but these days I mainly use a 15 inch Retina MacBook Pro, an iPad Mini and an iPhone along with devices like the Garmin Forerunner 610 running watch, Bluebuds X wireless headphones, an iPod Nano and some really expensive mechanical keyboards. I’ve done vector assembler programming to web programming to debugging crash dumps. I am considering switching to the feature phone/iPad Mini approach to cut service costs in half – if I can manage carrying around the iPad Mini. A bonus would be that I could bring the feature phone with me while running in the woods. My iPhone is too big and I don’t like wearing armbands.

    2. “You can get GoPhone service from AT&T for $100/year and this gives you 400 minutes/texts for the year.”
      “I could get a Verizon flip-phone and pay $15/month for 300 minutes/texts per month”

      Either way, that sounds expensive. In Europe, whatever the type of phone (assuming you own it), you can buy a SIM card with a regular monthly plan in the region of 3.00 EUR (including VAT) per month for 200 or so minutes/texts per month (<$4 per month)

      Probably because there is a lot of competition between lots of companies that are allowed to use the existing infrastructure of cell towers.

      1. US companies are good at reducing competition or having multiopolies which make it difficult for consumers. We see this in cellular service, ISP service at home and cable tv service. It’s not surprising to me that the cheap services here seem expensive to those in other countries.

    3. Virgin Mobile offers unlimited voice/500MB data for $25/month. Just bought an iPhone 5S from them for $150 ($250 – $100 credit). There’s even cheaper providers but they rarely sell good phones (VM/Sprint is clearly trying to get rid of excess 5S inventory prior to the new discount 5s being released this month)

      1. I would generally prefer to stick with Verizon for coverage. There’s one other thing that I like with using the tablet solution in that it gives you hotspot capability which I need sometimes for work. The third-party services generally don’t offer it or offer it for $5 to $10. One other thing that I like about the majors is that they will port your number without screwing it up.

  13. Ben: Do you have any stats on how many smartphone owners use their phone more like a feature phone or who have a smart phone but do not pay for a data plan? I think I know more people with old smartphones that fit this usage pattern than I know people who still own and use a phone like the one you have pictured above.

    1. This. I’m really curious about segmentation by apps use. I know a fair amount of people who barely use any: messaging/email and GPS, maybe a bit of Web.

  14. I’m one that does not have, nor has any interest in owning/using a smart phone. To further burnish my Luddite cred, I’ve been a professional software engineer for over fifteen years; I build my own PC’s; I’m in and out of UNIX and Windows systems. I don’t use Apple product – and snark behind the backs of those who bought into that Secret Garden.

    I’ve been to too many settings where you can identify those few who don’t belong to the herd of smart phone users. They are the ones sardonically smiling at the grazers who, emulating sea anemones, drift in and out of reality as they play more with their devices than attend to real life.

    I don’t intend that to sound as snarky as it came out. I’m agnostic on the entire subject. I just don’t see the value in it – for me. YMMV.

    1. “I’ve been a professional software engineer for over fifteen years”.

      You know, I thought that those who had feature phones were late adopters — people who either didn’t know about or didn’t want to know about technology. There’s no shame in that. We’re all late adopters in one area or another.

      But there have been several people in the comments who, like you quietlee2021, are very tech savvy yet have little or no interest in smartphones. I’ll admit this surprises me. That’s not a negative comment about you, it’s a negative observation on my lack of understanding regarding the smartphone marketplace.

      1. Totally understand. And no offense taken.

        I think it is more of a generational thing. I grew up in a home with only one land line phone. It wasn’t a necessary device in my life. Hence I’m used to not having to be connected constantly. My guess is that may be more the common in ‘my’ little niche of non-users. Don’t see the value in it because – for me – it provides very little value.

        Maps? Print out from MapQuest/Google etc. Get lost? North is north etc. Or stop and ask.

        Internet? Go home and do a query. In the wild? Why do I need the Internet?

        Games? Got tons of those – on my PC. Hand held device games are… not intending to offend but… dumb.

        List goes on. As in everything else YMMV. Cheers!

      2. I suspect that for many people, having a smartphone is specifically because they are not tech savvy. They find a PC or even a tablet to be overwhelmingly complicated. They want to text, make calls, use maybe one other messaging app and Facebook. They turned off their PC or outright dumped it once they could do those things on a smartphone.

        For the tech savvy, there are multiple ways of getting online. A smartphone is a relatively expensive alternative that is not really necessary.

      3. Sounds spammy to me. “In and out of UNIX systems” but avoids OS X? For Windows? Secret Garden? Seriously? Building pc’s as a hobby – from discrete components or bolting boards to a box? Programming Pi’s or connecting stuff on a breadboard hardly precludes one from using a Mac though. Unless you just fiddle of course. How many pc’s does it take to fill a basement?

      4. “it’s a negative observation on my lack of understanding regarding the smartphone marketplace.”

        1. Smartphones are expensive. Not everyone who is tech savvy has a high income. I have an iphone, but as I said upthread, it’s for the camera and the UI rather than for apps or web access. I will never spend more than $10 per month for cell service, which means I have no data plan for it.

        2. Not everyone who is tech savvy is on social media. I am not on facebook or twitter. I have a livejournal, and that’s it. I refuse to support the vile corporate business model of the Facebooks and Googles of the world. No social media = no Skinner box conditioned need to always be checking my feed.

        3. Not all tech savvy people are borderline asperger’s cases who would rather crawl over broken glass than have a direct interaction with another human being. I like to do my shopping in person, and prefer live phone conversations to SMS or email or IRC in most situations. So 90% of the hot apps that tech bloggers get excited about do nothing for me.

        Also, it feels more convenient and natural, less stressful and less invasive of my privacy if I am relaxing at home when I call someone, rather than trying to have a private conversation on the bus in front of 40 other people. So my iphone lives in my pocket when I am out and gets used maybe 1 out of every 4 or 5 trips (and I recharge it about 1.5 times a week).

        Since I am well under the average age of Ben’s survey of non-smartphone owners, I think these peculiarities are due to my personality rather than to my being old and resistant to change.

  15. My parents are 93.6 years old. Feature phone. Never used. They are saving for an emergency which will require it. Will never be used.
    The guy (age 62) who owns the tree service company that pruned my tree. He doesn’t text. You call him and he calls you back. Usually within 10 minutes. Not texting forces his kids to talk with him.
    The developer (age 65) of 5 new $1M houses in my neighborhood. Really old phone. He is a jerk and wants nothing on record. He doesn’t do email or text as all his promises are lies.

  16. For me, the article is mostly accurate. I’m early 60s and have a Samsung feature phone.
    But, why don’t I want a smart phone? First, I use a phone to make phone calls.
    I hate talking with anyone on an iPhone. The quality is horrible. So, I think that
    most with a smart phone (at least an Apple iPhone) doesn’t use it as a phone for
    important conversations, would be far to frustrating.

    Secondly, I carry around books, magazines, newspapers to read. Why? Because I do
    not like looking at the world through a 2×3″ screen. I have multiple big-screen TVs at
    home to watch video – really big screens… I have two desktops at home, one with two
    large monitors, just bought a new powerful Dell…

    So, it’s not the money… it’s what you do with them that’s why I do not own one. I
    have more important things to do when I’m out and around than to stare at this little
    device…. like talk with real people… do real things in the real world…

  17. Great article! You have described the “laggard adopter” — the polar opposite of the “early adopter” — those who inhabit the proverbial “left end” of the tech adoption bell curve.

    For a variety of psychodemographic reasons, they are not motivated to adopt what is mainstream technology. In the past, they were the ones who kept paying monthly rental fees on their old Western Electric phones when one could buy off-the-shelf touch tone phones for the price of two months of their rental fees.

    They are the hunters and gatherers of the modern 21st century. Nice ethnographic work, Ben!

  18. How about examples from the “Other. Please specify” category – for
    reasons for not wanting a smartphone? Do people articulate this in connection to conceptions of free time? of leisure or time management, or personal freedom in some way? What a thrilling set of data you must have there.

  19. I currently have an S6. No complaints. I was content with my S3, kids thought I needed to update.. However, after many years of having a smart phone, I am going back to a feature phone.
    Why? Because I find I am constantly on my phone! Whether it’s boredom, games, or researching, I’m just sick of it. I figure if I really need/want to get online bad enough I’ll get on my laptop at home. I’m longing for simpler times, I guess.

  20. I am one of the cohort of non smart phone users.
    Your analysis is mildly interesting but the reality for me is neither cost nor complexity.
    I have,and use extensively,an i pad mini and find it invaluable for what I want to do.
    I do not want,however,to join the hordes of unsociable zombies staring gormlessly at their phones in the street,in restaurants and everywhere else they go!

    1. I am 20 and find myself in agreement with you. I own an HTC smartphone and got my first smartphone in 2013. Since I got my HTC I became addicted to it unknowingly, and had to check it every few minutes. I often can easily spend an hour sitting scrolling through social media pointlessly as a way to pass time rather than doing something constructive. I also have found it increasingly hard to get to sleep when I use my smartphone late at night, and found it incredibly hard to concentrate on a task for longer than an hour! Everywhere I go I keep noticing the negative side affects of a smart phone, especially people’s social skills. You can no longer go to a concert where half the crowd is not glued to their phone the entire time! I even have to clock in and out of work on an app! I am definitely going to be moving back to a flip or slide phone very soon.

  21. Technology is an annoiance. We pay for convince. You don’t need a smart phone.You have a smart phone because you want it. Its not out of necessity. I chose the basic phone. You and I are different. Let’s celebrate our differences.


  22. I am 49 years old and I continue to use one of the original Nokia go-phones for calls and texting. I have had this phone for 16 years – original battery, original charger, and dropped several times without breaking anything. Also, friends who use my phone are amazed at the sound quality. I pay approximately $55/month after taxes and fees. I choose not to go with a smart phone for the following reasons: 1) this phone still works, 2) I have firm boundaries for phone usage, 3) I don’t “need” a smart phone, 4) cost of purchase AND monthly cost of plans, and 5) I refuse to be bullied into using a smart phone. I have purchased cars for less than what some phones cost, and I do not adhere to our throw-away and always-needing-the-newest-thing society technology has created. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy and am fluent in technology. I simply don’t see the need for constant change for the sake of change. I primarily use an Apple MacBook Pro for my computing and streaming needs, and I have an older PC desktop. If I were to upgrade anything, it would be to a newer laptop, possibly a tablet. Now that I am being forced to upgrade my phone due to my carrier no longer supporting 2G network phones, I have considered making the leap to a smartphone, but in the end I have chosen to go with another feature – or “dumb” – phone because of the cost and based on principle.

  23. I am an IT guy and a real estate investor. I am into tech and have plenty of money, My phone: A Samsung Rugby 2 flip phone. I always keep a new one on the shelf in case this one breaks. Texting is turned off, I don’t take photos with it, and I don’t care about any of the features. I use it to call people and receive calls. That’s it. I have ZERO plans to change to a smartphone. Sorry!

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