Smartphone Use in the U.S. Today: A Look Before the iPhone 5 Upends It

NEWS ANALYSIS: The iPhone 5's launch is expected to be anything but subtle, suggesting it could kick smartphone use a major boost. On the eve of its launch, a Pew report offers a snapshot of where the market stands now.

Apple is expected to introduce an iPhone 5 at its planned Sept. 12 event, and what follows, by any number of accounts, should be dramatic. JPMorgan Chase analyst Michael Feroli has suggested that the smartphone's arrival could actually boost the entire U.S. economy by up to half a percent. Topeka Capital analyst Brian White has predicted that its arrival will usher in the "biggest upgrade in consumer electronics history," while Jefferies' Peter Misek expects nothing short of the "biggest handset launch in history."

Certainly, then, Apple's new iPhone could also bring about a few feature phone converts. On the eve of Apple's announcement, the Pew Research Center released a study offering a snapshot of where we currently stand without it.

In Pew's Aug. 7 through Sept. 6 survey of 3,014 adults, it found that 45 percent of all American adults currently own a smartphone. Among young adults, those 18 to 29 years old, and all adults in households with incomes of $75,000 and higher, that figure rises considerably, to 66 percent and 68 percent, respectively.

"These latest figures show that smartphone ownership has increased from 35 percent in May 2011 to 45 percent," Pew said in the Sept. 11 report. More notably, it added, "There has been no change in smartphone ownership from figures ... in a survey at the beginning of the year."

Apple's second-quarter iPhone sales failed to meet Wall Street expectations for only the second time in 39 quarters-which Apple CEO Tim Cook suggested could be due to consumers waiting for the iPhone 5-and Samsung earlier this month announced that it had sold more than 20 million Galaxy S III smartphones. Perhaps those who planned to buy one already have? If Apple's latest device can push the needle on smartphone user totals, Pew should know so by the end of the year.

NPD Group analyst Stephen Baker pointed out in a Sept. 11 blog post that Apple has already sated iPhone-hungry customers at Verizon Wireless and Sprint (T-Mobile's subscribers certainly remain hungry) and that "since blowing away all the weakened competition," it's now in the more challenging position of facing only the remaining, tougher competition.

But given's Pew's 45 percent figure, there are still users to convert. Who are they?

They're equally men and women. Pew found 46 percent of men to be smartphone owners, compared with 45 percent of women. Age is a far greater determinant of smartphone use: The younger the user group, the more likely to use smartphones. Among adults 30 to 49 years, 59 percent own smartphones, while that dips to 34 percent for the 50- to 64-year-old set and 11 percent for senior citizens.

Income and education, Pew found, also consistently affect smartphone ownership-the higher the household income or education level of respondents, the greater the percentage of smartphone owners among their peers.

Ethnically, Pew continued, Hispanics are the leading smartphone owners-49 percent, compared with 47 percent of black respondents and 42 percent of white.

Pew doesn't offer breakout information on users who identify themselves as Asian, because it says not enough of its survey participants do.

"For example, we usually get around 50 Asian-Americans in a standard tracking survey ... a group of that size has a margin of error of +/-16 percentage points, which is far too big to provide useful information," Aaron Smith, a senior research specialist at Pew explained to eWEEK in May, when we first inquired about this missing group. The responses of respondents who identify as Asian, Native American, mixed race or "other" do, however, get included in the overall numbers.

In a dated 2010 blog post, Smith went into a little more detail.

Interestingly, in a Sept. 11 Nielsen report on how Americans are consuming video across platforms, the firm found that, when mobile device use was broken down by ethnicity, Asians were the largest smartphone-using group of all-66 percent, compared with 56 percent of Hispanics, 55 percent of African-Americans and 45 percent of whites.

"Smartphones, with a penetration greater than that of DVRs and gaming consoles, said the report, are increasingly being used as vehicles for content delivery," reported Nielsen. "Today, nearly 36 million mobile phone owners in the U.S. watch video on their phones."

To Apple, that likely sounds like plenty of room for growth.