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.
What Is Considered a Smartphone?
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.
The Number of Smartphones Today
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:
- Overall, there are currently about 3.6 billion unique smartphone users, though this is an estimation at best. Different sources may put that number at about 3.4 billion, and records for previous years may differ from the data we use for the graph below.
- Additionally, there are 5.11 billion mobile phone (this includes smartphones) users worldwide as of 2019 (the 2020 data just is not in yet). Over time, we can expect more of them to convert as smartphones before affordable or available.
- We can expect a rise in both smartphone users and general mobile device users as time goes on with the rising population and increased production.
- As you can see from the graph above, there is a clear and consistent trend upwards, with a couple of jumps in 2016 and 2019.
- By 2023, we project there will be 4.3 billion smartphone users, though how accurate this will be remains to be seen.
- Something else of note is that there are currently about 7.74 billion Internet of Things (IoT) devices online as of 2019, and it is expected that in 2021 there will be 10.07 billion devices online. There is no expectation of this trend slowing down as more devices gain smart functionality, even as the smartphone market becomes partially saturated.
- To partially explain this, more cars, television sets, and other home electronics are gaining smart functionality, and they are becoming more common or even expected in their respective industries. The day where everyone has a smart toaster is still some time away, but smart features in cars, if only for the sake of safety, may soon become the norm.
- Why is this important to smartphones? Connectivity is the main answer. As more major household devices effectively require a smartphone to use to their fullest potential and smart device literacy is expected as the norm as the years go on, smartphones will be even more necessary than ever.
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?
Smartphones by Country
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:
- China is the clear leader here, though by no means does every citizen of the country has a smartphone, as one might expect in the United States.
- European countries generally follow the Western trend compared to the country’s respective populations, as much as Asian countries follow China and India. There are still untapped markets there, although we will have to see how much actual growth has occurred between the data collection and today to understand each country’s trends better.
- Interestingly, the number of smartphones in some Asian countries vastly outstrips the number of other devices or desktops (and laptops).
- While in the United States, it might be easy to assume, some regions do not have as nearly as many smartphones in use as the rest of the country, or they are not used as often. For example, while it is a limited exception, there is a zone that does not have service and effectively bans cell phone use. There are still places getting along just fine without smartphones and related technology.
- Another statistic to look at by country that we have touched upon is the smartphone penetration rate, which is the number of smartphone users compared to the total population. A penetration rate of 100 percent, for example, would mean every single person in the country is using a smartphone, babies included (although some would say many babies are being nearly raised with smartphones).
- The United States takes the clear lead here, as expected, with many other European countries trailing closely.
- Also as expected, many high-population but not equally industrial countries such as Pakistan, India, China, and others do not have a complete penetration rate of smartphones. One would expect that many might be using cell phones of some sort, but the leap to smartphones hasn’t happened just yet.
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.
Other Interesting Facts and Figures
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:
- Usage matters. Even if every person in the world has a smartphone, some people will use phones more than others, perhaps attracting attention from app and smartphone makers, knowing where more potential revenue (or at least brand awareness) is.
- Americans, for example, will use their phone an average of 5.4 hours a day, which is more than the average American spends watching the television each day (and Americans really like television).
- eCommerce is now happening more on mobile than ever before. More purchases and transactions are made on mobile devices every year, to the degree that ecommerce sites without a mobile app or layout are being left behind.
- Smartphones go with us anywhere, even when we are driving. About 88 percent of smartphone owners use their phones while driving, although it is unknown whether this involves just streaming music or more in-depth and attentive usage. Using a smartphone with your hands is illegal in many states and areas.
- You certainly see children with smartphones and even going to school with them; it’s nearly a given with high school students. Yet, there are still concerns about the effect of smartphones on health and development, especially that of children.
- From 10-30 percent of children feel immense discomfort if they do not have a phone around.
- About 92 percent of people believe that smartphone addiction exists. More research needs to be done as far as a more clinical definition or increased scrutiny of the trend.
- All of the above clearly means that the next generations will be using smartphones for better or worse and probably will be using them (or their replacements) for the rest of their lives.
- Most people look at their smartphones before they go to bed, which is a concern for many and can cause poor sleep. More than 40 percent of people have been woken up by either the noise or light from a smartphone. Given the importance of sleep and how often this can occur, the compounding effects are alarming.
Smartphones Over Traditional Computers?
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.
5G, Supporting Infrastructure, and a World Ready for More
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.
Growth for the Future
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:
- Increased Need for Smartphones: As more functions become available to smartphones, more companies will offer more services on them, and the expectation that someone will have one will grow. A smartphone is currently needed to access many non-essential services (or make things much easier). Eventually, there will be fewer excuses not to have one.
- Expansion into New Markets: As discussed previously, when we were considering smartphone numbers in other countries, there are new markets that are growing in various ways. Once the infrastructure springs up and they become popular, there will be fewer reasons for people living in the areas not to have a smartphone, if a cheap one.
- New investments and initiatives: Given how more people are clamoring for smartphones and how they are a lifeline to many, it is possible they could be provided or subsidized by an organization (many companies already offer smartphones for work use). Perhaps a new tax policy encourages their adoption? Or data plans become heavily regulated by the government to become affordable? While the latest model is not likely to be used and remains a political impossibility in many countries, there could be progress, but the number of users will go up with any such programs.
- Unforeseen Developments or Ideas: On top of these things, the unknown could always occur, and there could be a massive leap in smartphone technology, making everyone want a new model and driving growth beyond what is projected. New app ideas or developments might be better able to solve common problems, making a smartphone that much more useful of a purchase. The only thing we know about the future is that the unknown is around the corner.
- Improved Infrastructure and Support: If there is no cellular service in a region, why bother getting a cell phone, much less a smartphone? Similarly, data rates and plans still vary in effectiveness from region to region. The fast speeds you are likely used to result from investments and infrastructure improvements that allow them. The more coverage service providers can offer, the more likely someone is to adopt a smartphone, and service providers worldwide are trying to expand coverage to be the first one in the area, as long as the investment seems worth it to them.
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.
Potential Limitations or Roadblocks for Smartphone Growth
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.