The smartphone revolution

I wrote an article on this subject earlier in the week for the for the BBC College of Journalism website.

The text is also posted below.

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In retrospectives prompted by Steve Jobs’ recent decision to stand down as CEO of Apple, not surprisingly the iPod, iPhone and iPad were all cited as major successes. Apple, of course, didn’t invent the technologies behind these products, but it has undeniably played a major role in bringing them to the mass market.

But what’s striking about all of these examples is the speed with which they have become a ubiquitous part of so many people’s lives – especially the under 25s.

The first iPhone didn’t launch until 2007. Android phones appeared a year later. Yet in the first quarter of this year almost half of UK mobile sales were smartphones, up from 4% just six years earlier.

Ofcom’s recent Communications Market Report showed that over a quarter of the adults and almost half the teenagers in Britain now own a smartphone, with the majority of these acquired over the past year. And this pace of take up is only likely to increase.

IDC predicts the global smartphone market will grow by almost 50% in 2011, with 450 million smartphones being sold across the world this year alone. And that figure is expected to double to a billion smartphones a year being sold by 2015.

It’s heady stuff, and an opportunity for journalists, businesses and consumers alike.

A recent study from the US showed that a quarter of US adults get some form of news via their mobile phone, with users under 50 almost three times as likely get news on the go.

Twitter, Angry Birds or check-in services like Foursquare are just some of the businesses to benefit from the creation of an app market. From a standing start a couple of years ago, this market is expected to be worth $25 billion in 2015.

And, for consumers, smartphones bring a range of benefits – including replacing other technological devices like a traditional alarm clock, GPS devices or even their camera.

An ‘always on’ phone also enables you to do many of the things you used to do from a PC, wherever you may be. As a result, Facebook is not only the most popular UK website in terms of time spent on it from a PC (169 million hours across the UK in April 2011), it is the UK’s most popular mobile website.

It is perhaps no surprise then that in a recent Ofcom survey more than a third of adults and 60% of teens admitted to being ‘highly addicted’ to their smartphones. They use them while socialising with others, during mealtimes, or in places where they should be off – like the cinema. And more than a fifth of adult and nearly half of teenage smartphone users admitted to using or answering their handset in the bathroom or toilet.

This isn’t just a peculiarly British phenomenon, either. More than a third of US adults now own a smartphone. According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of these sleep with their phones next to their bed. (I’m an under the pillow man myself.)

But to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Hence the quiet yet slowly discernible rise of the Digitox – a typically self-imposed temporary exile from Facebook et al. The Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel is just one establishment where you have to surrender your digital devices on check in.

Guests taking the ‘Zen and the Art of Detox’ package find that “Prior to your arrival, the television, phone, and ihome dock station will be removed from your guest room and replaced by literary classics.” Excellent. But what if I promised to read Austin or Dickens on my Kindle? Well, probably not. 

Damian Radcliffe is Manager, Nations and Communities, at Ofcom. He is writing here in a personal capacity.

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