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In Search of the Amazingly Elusive Non-Smartphone Owner

You may even be one yourself.

Olivia Claire/YouTube

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

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 their ancient devices, and we are bewildered.

In the U.S., roughly 15 percent to 18 percent 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 U.S. smartphone market study.

We spot them every now and then in the wild using their ancient devices, and we are bewildered.

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:

non-smartphone 1

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 cellphone” 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 percent 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 three or four years, and said they have no intention of replacing it for another two or three years. Does a Samsung or LG (the most popular brands owned by this cohort) last for six to seven 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 percent 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 that it seems as if U.S. 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.

While interesting, and rare, these customers are unique in many ways, and represent a part of the market many of us who live and breathe tech find hard to comprehend.

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 five or six 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. More than 60 percent have no plans to buy a PC/laptop of any kind this year, while 12 percent said it they would “possibly” buy a new PC this year, and only 10 percent 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 that 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 breathe 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 put, 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 of 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.

Ben Bajarin is a principal analyst 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. He is a husband, father, gadget enthusiast, trend spotter, early adopter and hobby farmer. Reach him @BenBajarin.

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