Why are we so obsessed with our smartphones?

The first smartphones debuted in 1994, thirteen years before the iPhone. They were the tools of business types and techies. BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm — they were the major smartphone players of the beginning of the 2000s, and while they sported a lot of the same basic functionality as today's phones, they weren't nearly as good.

Smartphones then were chunky devices with clunky software. They were pricy and in some opinions ugly, favoring function over form. In spite of their capabilities, they were overshadowed by feature phones like the Motorola RAZR and LG Chocolate. It wasn't until 2007 and the consumer-focused iPhone that the category was legitimized for the masses.

Since that historic day in 2007 when the smartphone "became" the union of an iPod, phone and internet device consumers have never looked back.

A UI for you and I

Apple layered a touch-friendly interface over an established concept while strategically riding on the success of the iPod and an internet that had matured. Most pre-iPhone smartphones could do more than the first iPhone but weren't user-friendly. Apple's "app launcher" home screen made navigating a smartphone easy for everyone.

Moreover, as former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer acknowledged, carrier subsidized phones made this expensive reimagining of the smartphone accessible to millions:

Eventually, smartphones and iPhones became virtually synonymous. This helped to solidify not only the iPhone's market position but also the ecosystem Apple built around it. Apple's redefining of the smartphone also introduced the app marketplace and developer ecosystem paradigm that has shaped our smartphone experience for nearly ten years.

Apple defined how the masses perceive the smartphone and a mobile ecosystem.

Despite Apple's pioneering of the consumer-focused smartphone and app marketplace, the majority of the billions of smartphones in use run Android. Still hundreds of millions of people use iPhones while just a fraction of smartphone consumers use Windows phones. Despite one's platform choice, however, our smartphones are very important to us.

As the access point to our most personal documents, photos, banking information, social media identities and more, smartphones are the most personal objects many of us carry. A lost smartphone potentially represents a greater risk to a compromised identity than a lost wallet.

Not all fun and games

Despite our focus as writers on apps and OS updates and technologies and marketing strategies, the sobering reality is that a smartphone represents a real lifeline for many people. For millions of people smartphones are more than high-tech gadgets that represent the ecosystem to which a user has committed.

A smartphone is a lifeline for many people.

The evolution of the digital landscape which parallels our physical world has made our smartphones an almost indispensable portal to our digital lives. In fact, a 2015 Pew Research Study revealed that 46% of Americans feel they can't live without their smartphones. Global data likely echoes this stat. Sure other devices have the same access to our digital activity, but they are not as mobile nor as connected as our smartphones. Furthermore, many low-income smartphone users don't even own a PC or a tablet or have a home internet connection.

The "always connected" nature of smartphones is vitally important to low-income individuals and others for whom a broadband connection may not be available. A smartphone is their primary connection to the internet — they are "smartphone dependent." But these devices are not cheap and nor is the service to power them.

Despite prevailing perceptions, young adults' smartphone obsession goes beyond Snapchat, games and the like. Serious activity like online banking, job searching and accessing education content are also important activities. Researching a health condition also ranks high among this group. This could be a result of an "information-focused generation" who is inclined to try to self-diagnose before visiting a doctor.

The disproportionate allocation of wealth (which has many contributing factors) in America is also reflected in our smartphone usage. Compared to 4% of white Americans, 12% of African-Americans and 13% of Latinos are smartphone dependent.

Clearly, a smartphone is a vital tool for helping millions of people connect to resources that enable them to navigate and survive in an increasingly digital world.

Social impact and fanboys

Most smartphone use revolves around being "connected." This goes beyond the digital connections we establish in social media. It's also reflected in the collective social, psychological and emotional connections established when we're "part of the fad or trend" set by the latest app or game.

Many iPhone and Android phone users shared in the social phenomenon that was "Pokemon Go." Window Phone users were then, and are often excluded from these collective experiences. Some are fads. Others, like Snapchat, which is now used to inform students that they're accepted into a college and has also created AR glasses, are evolving platforms.

Smartphone users like to feel like they're part of the trends.

Still, most smartphone use revolves around following and sharing personal news, pictures, videos and engaging in social media activity. Despite that, some individuals have an overzealous commitment to a single platform. They are derogatorily referred to as fanboys – individuals whose passion overrides social graces and sometimes even logic.

I wonder what overzealous Windows phone and Android fans would say if they knew I considered switching my second (business line) from my Lumia 1020 to an Android phone while keeping my esteemed 1520 as my primary device.

Extra appendage

Our smartphones are virtual extensions of ourselves to which we have an emotional connection. They're deeply personal nature often makes us defensive of them, as well as the digital ecosystems they grant us access to and to which we've entrusted our digital lives. They help us to be productive after all, and 77% of people said their phones make them feel happy.

Given their deep integration within our lives, our dependence upon them and their persistent physical presence, an emotional connection to our smartphones is only natural. Isn't it?

Jason Ward

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!