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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 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!

30 Comments
  • Thanks for reading folks!!! The fact that this website was previously called Windows Phone Central, and Windows phone news still garners a tremendous response from readers is a testimony to the impact smartphones has had on many of us. Windows phone news also elicits a very emotional response for some and can lead to very polarizing discussions in comments. Smartphones are very personal objects that connect us to personal data, and for many are a vital tool to survival in the digital age. For millions of people, the fan-focused sentiment toward a "phone" that so dominates the views on the commentary and forums of tech sites is alien to thier perception of a smartphone. For many its simply a means to an end. A necessary tool. For others a smartphone "connects" them to experiences and social phenomenon like the "Pokémon Go" craze, the evolving Snapchat platform and other very common social media experiences. Personally, I'm a techie and would own a phone from virtually every platform if I could afford to. But since I can't i stick with my favorite. What is it about smartphones that so impacts us and influences such strong opinions, emotions and often leads to passionate discussions that sometimes even draws out the less appealing parts of our natures? Why are we so obsessed with our smartphones?
  • Good article and good luck with your search for that phone to use for your business line. I think for the fact that we often have ours with us and that we make the choice what one we want, it feels a bit more personal. Currently, it's "socially acceptable" to have a computer that is really only good with emails, no one cares as much that you have a simple computer. Your phone though? Not so much. Some people very much feel that the phone and mobile OS that they use defines them. Additionally, it is one of the only things that we can change as we please without going into the red like you would with a car, or a place to live. Quotes for socially acceptable because not everyone buys into that.
  • They replace the distance between our intereses, we can not always be there with our friends , out music , our work or shows, so the smartphone of today world is made that we don't miss then. Even when you are far away.
  • This right here!
  • No matter how much we say, the windows phone market share will remain in fraction with mostly low quality apps with irregular updates
  • And it's that level of coectivity and that user base that keeps Microsoft working on Windows Mobile.
  • I can live just fine without obsessing over my smartphone, maybe that's why I'm happy with my current Lumia 640 and W10M? Couldn't care less about how much they say it sucks in comparison with Android/iOS.
  • Exactly!
  • For me, since I consider myself as someone into tech, I am not only into it because I find it to be interesting. To an extent, I believe that being able to choose what phone I want to use defines a part of me in a sense. It's fun to have one of each for me, as it gives me an excuse and a place to comment on the state of things for each OS and it is really nice to hop when I'm frustrated or bored with one of them!  Good article Jason.
  • I like my smartphone because it replaces so many separate devices. It's a GPS device, an mp3 player, a camera, a video player, a reading device, etc all in one.
  • Yep its a transformer in the palm of our hands. It's a newspaper, a flashlight, a weather app and the possibility are endless.
  • Yepers🎈
  • I use a 950xl, have only MS apps, this one, wikipedia and Facebook and I'm happy. I just don't get people being so attached to phones, the camera and web browser are the only real things keeping me from using a dumb phone. Seriously a Nokia 8900 would suit me with a data connection to my Surface Pro when needed. Glad I'm not part of this generational need for being connected.
  • Personally, I don't find myself that often with a phone as my only connection to the world. I prefer a tablet in the easy chair or desktop when trying to work. That said, I rely on my phone for camera, gps, note taker and time killer (FB, Twitter, email etc). Oh, and of course phone calls and texts! LOL. Probably the biggest need for always having the phone on me is as a phone, now that my household only uses the landline for junk calls.
  • I have found myself going out of my way to avoid pulling out my phone. Looking around me when Im out and about, its become a dangerous or depressing obsession. People driving cant sit at a damn traffic light for a minute without pulling out their phones, cant drive without doing something with their phone. People walking, at stores/restaurants, etc, etc. I dont want to become that. Ill certainly keep my phone, but I am proud of myself for doing my best to keep myself in check. Just because Im bored at times, isn't a good enough reason to pull out the phone. There's nothing wrong with just sitting and thinking, talking with people, admiring your surroundings.
  • I agree. I feel the same way. I do use my phone for audio listening (audible, groove, Pandora) in the car. But not only do I find phones ignore everyone else around you (including family and friends) but they also tend to be less effective at doing many things that I enjoy (like gaming and pictures and watching videos).
  • I feel like we're creating a world full of digital zombies. Walking the earth, but not experiencing it. It's depressing to me, really. Enough so in that I send my kids to an old school, school. No personal electronics whatsoever allowed at the school. No computers for the kids as "learning tools". No ipads. No smartboards. It's awesome. And I actually have a degree in computer science.
  • Because we're obsessed with instant gratification.  
  • I have always loved portable Tech. Scifi Nerd defines me. Star Trek communicators', Dick Tracy radio watches, Man from U.N.C.L.E. pen Walkie Talkies, and so on,it intrigued me. My first bit of handheld smart technology was a Texas Instrument personal assistant, which was a basis calendar reminder. It kept my scattered brain on task and I was in love 💘. But next I had to carry a flip phone and a Pocket Pilot , people thought I was crazy. Thank God for the Samsung Omnia, a Windows Phone. Yes I'm obsessed.
    And I don't need no stinking apps.
  • In total I only use my phone for about 2 hours in an entire day, and yet things like low battery, no data connection or simply not having it with me make me very agitated. It's the whole "what if a new fast ring build was released? How will I know??" kind of moment. Very obsessive and I think it's a really bad thing to have an entire generation of people feeling this way about any device. I remember having years as a child without even a Gameboy and somehow I managed to survive, try the same thing today and I think I'd be sectioned within a day.
  • Sharing ones hardships is a great way to get out of an addiction. Another great way is simply to cut oneself off the grid for a week or two with something that hopefully matters more, like friends and Family :)
  • No smartphone like Lumai phones.......That's my thought.
  • A smartphone is an extension of a person and we do get attached to our preferences. It's why I don't understand so many businesses skipping on making apps for Windows 10 Mobile. When Delta ended support for their app, I decided that I wouldn't be flying with them anymore. They basically said that they don't want to offer mobile capabilities to me as a customer. "Well Dan, just get a different phone." I don't want a different phone. And I run into this all the time. A business will tell me "Just download our app" but it's not there for Windows. And the level at which it bothers me is greater than any other. I prefer a manual transmission but I don't get annoyed when a rental place only has automatics. I prefer a booth at a restaurant, but it doesn't bother me if a place only has tables. I enjoy certain magazines (automotive, technology) but I don't complain if I go to a doctor's office and all they have is Good Housekeeping or even if they were all in a language I don't know. I don't even care if measurements are given to me in metric or imperial. But tell me an app is only on iOS and Android and now I feel spurned. It's odd how we get like that (or at least I do).
  • That's another reason why I love smartphones. I don't have to read magazines that don't interest me when I'm waiting at the doctor's office. I just read an eBook of my own preference.
  • Even before Smartphones you could've just brought a magazine, or book, of your choice, and brought it with you... Lol. Just saying🤓🤓🤓
  • Jobs talks a whole lot of BS.
    How convenient that none of these were mentioned.
    Sony Ericsson P900
    Pocket PC/Windows CE/Mobile from HP, HTC etc.
    Nokia 9000
  • My wife struggles to not have a phone and/or tablet on the go 24/7...
  • I can honestly say that I'm a bit attached to mine. Mostly because of the email access that I have for work and school. I do like playing the occasional game or watching videos. The smartphone has become an all-in-one entertainment device for me.
  • I think it just comes down to being connected to everyone and being able to do pretty much everything you need/want to on a phone.
  • I can live without my mobile device. After a few days any sense of "but I have to do X" is gone. I have done this many times by now, so I know I can live without one. I would prefer not to, because having it is my best way of keeping in touch with those most important to me socially - But I know I do not die from not having it. I use my collection of Windows tech to expand my knowledge and skills. I am one of those DO kind of persons Microsoft caters to - I guess :)