What Apple and Android owe to Symbian and RIM

Following up on survey data showing that up to 25 percent of Americans have moved to smartphones, here is another survey (Comscore) which shows that US smartphone users are at about 23 percent.

Comscore also surveyed European countries, and we can compare the popularity of smartphones vs. the US.

I also indexed the share to population to show the relative populations of smartphone users across these countries.

It may come as a surprise to some that smartphones are more popular in the UK, Spain and Italy than in the US. Considering that these are countries with lower levels of disposable income, and that in Italy and Spain pre-paid plans are overwhelmingly more popular. Buyers in those countries are much more likely to pay full, unsubsidized prices plus 20% or more VAT. Overall the price differential for an Italian buying a smartphone vs. an American is likely to be a factor of 5. It gets even more peculiar when you consider that many Italians have more than one phone, with overall phone line penetration above 100%.

The explanation for this remarkable appetite for smartphone goodness is the early lead that Symbian had in Europe. Buyers who entered the phone market ten years ago became accustomed to upgrading their Nokia phones. Symbian phones were aspirationally positioned as feature-rich camera and messaging devices. Many were also purchased without data plans and were thus used as high-end feature phones. In other words, consumers in those countries were comfortable paying full price for unlocked Nokia devices and using them with multiple SIM cards.

This can be seen in the share of Symbian in these charts:

The data points to how normative behavior evolved and how different that can be even among culturally aligned Western nations. When looking at Asia and South America, it gets even more interesting.

Whereas in Europe it was Symbian, in the US RIM got the ball rolling.

The contribution of these platforms in shaping expectations, not to mention pricing, for the iPhone and Android should be noted.

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  • Hi Horace, thank you for yet another excellent post.

    I've been studying these numbers for a while, and what is quite interesting is comparing smartphone penetration to actual web usage. It seems quite clear that symbian users access the net far less than iPhone and Android users. At least in Europe.
    Looking at Italy, we have the highest smartphone share in Europe (34%), but only between 10% to 15% actually use the internet on these phones. Compared to Scandinavia, we have a slightly smaller smartphone share, but almost twice as many users of mobile internet. Most of these being iPhone and Android users of-course.
    The current classification of smartphones is broken, and I feel there is a need to separate "super-smartphones", with wifi and rich browsers, from the odd 3G phone with Opera mini.
    Adding a to this, the new breed of mobile touch devices that are not phones need to be included in this picture.

    • Agreed. I've argued in the past that Blackberries are not smartphones in the same sense as iPhones are.

      Early on Nokia defined smartphones as high-end camera phones. In the middle of the decade RIM defined smartphones as email devices. Microsoft tried to call them enterprise devices. In 2007 the iPhone redefined the smartphone around browsing. In 2008 it was redefined around apps. The definitions keeps shifting.

      The thing that always struck me about Symbian market share numbers is what percent of those buyers also had data plans of any kind (it's significant). Is a smartphone that has no data use really a smartphone?

      • Shaun

        "Is a smartphone that has no data use really a smartphone?"

        Of course it is. Back in the 90s when there was no 3G, no GPRS and we were using dialup CSD on our Nokia Communicators, they were still smartphones.

        The iPhone and Android might be fish out of water without an internet connection but Symbian phones aren't which is why they're still used by people without dataplans.

      • @Shaun
        But you *were* using the device for data. For average users, not having a data plan means they don't use the smartphone for data-oriented communications of any kind (except for SMS and MMS). So I ask again, is a smartphone that is used to make phone calls and take photos and nothing else a smartphone?

        The question is related to categorization of product based on how it's used not its attributes. If a device is hired to do computer-like tasks then it's different than one that is hired to do phone-like tasks, regardless of what's inside.

      • Darren

        Blackberries are not "smart phones in the same sense as iPhones"? Please. Without using the fallacious apps and app stores argument, please explain how an iPhone or Android variant is, but the Torch is not. Rubbish.

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  • Shaun


    With CSD though the data just came out of my voice minutes. Most of the time I was using the smartphone features to do things like take quick notes, my diary, contacts. All the things that were standard on PDAs back then that didn't rely on an internet connection.

    So, back then phone+PDA = smartphone. At some point the industry has decided smartphones also needed an internet connection and what we used to call smartphones are just fancy features phones with apps. Now feature phones have internet + apps too so I think people are just reaching to either categorise products where the label is so vague.

    The first B&W Mac was a computer even without the internet just as much as the iMac in front of me is. This iMac isn't a smartcomputer.

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