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Originally published Monday, June 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Smartphones: from gadget to necessity

In today's recession-racked economy, penny-pinching is a national pastime. But people are still opening their wallets for smartphones.

The New York Times

In today's recession-racked economy, penny-pinching is a national pastime. But people are still opening their wallets for smartphones.

Sales of BlackBerrys, iPhones and other smartphone models are rising smartly and are projected to increase 25 percent this year, according to research company Gartner. Widely anticipated new models like the Palm Pre, which went on sale nationwide June 6, will help fuel that growth.

Meanwhile, total cellphone sales are expected to fall.

The smartphone surge, it seems, is a case of a trading-up trend in technology that is running strong enough to weather the downturn. And as is so often true when it comes to adoption of new technology, the smartphone story is as much about consumer sociology and psychology as it is about chips, bytes and bandwidth.

For a growing segment of the population, the social expectation is that a person is nearly always connected and reachable almost instantly via e-mail. The smartphone, analysts say, is the instrument of that connectedness — and thus worth the cost, both as a communications tool and as a status symbol.

"The social norm is that you should respond within a couple of hours, if not immediately," said David Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. "If you don't, it is assumed you are out to lunch mentally, out of it socially or don't like the person who sent the e-mail."

The spread of those social assumptions may signal a technological crossover that echoes the proliferation of e-mail itself more than a decade ago. At some point in the 1990s, it became socially unacceptable — at least for many people — not to have an e-mail address.

Smartphone converts

Smartphones are not cheap, particularly in tough economic times. The phones, even with routine discounts from wireless carriers, usually cost $100 to $300, while the data and calling service plans are typically $80 to $100 a month.

But recent smartphone converts are often people who count pennies, including many from the growing ranks of job seekers.

Helene Rude, of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., was laid off from her job as an IBM business-development manager this year, when her unit, among others, was the target of cuts. When she left, Rude had to turn in her company notebook computer with its constant wireless connection.

So she got an iPhone instead, allowing her to be online no matter where she was, without having to lug a computer around.

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"I absolutely got it for the job search," she said. "I don't know if it's really an expectation, but if another job candidate returns an e-mail message eight hours later, and you get back immediately with a message that says 'Sent from my iPhone,' I think it has to be a check box in your favor."

Snowball effect

That is certainly the sort of message the wireless industry would like to reinforce. "Smartphones are seen as essential to be productive in a mobile society," said David Christopher, chief marketing officer at AT&T's wireless division.

James Balsillie, co-CEO of Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, said the company's introduction of less-business-oriented phones, with the general spread of mobile communication, explained the snowballing growth in BlackBerry users.

They now number 25 million, nearly double the total a year ago and a tenfold increase in the past four years.

The smartphone wave, industry analysts say, should continue to build. The room for gains is ample because, though rising, smartphone sales will still account for only a quarter of total cellphone shipments in the United States this year.

And along with the Palm Pre, a host of new smartphone handset and software offerings are coming this year from Apple, RIM, Nokia, Microsoft, Google and others.

The industry's goal is to win over more rank-and-file converts like Joseph Sexton of San Jose, Calif., who calls himself "not a gadget person."

Sexton, 45, decided to leave his job as a manager of a community-health organization to travel then look for other work, shortly before the financial crisis hit last fall.

He soon found himself looking for work in a tough market and got a smartphone as a digital assistant in his search. Now he is hooked.

"It allows me to be on top of things, and always connected, no matter where I am," he said.

Sexton searches the Web, takes notes and sends e-mail with his iPhone. When he has trouble sleeping, he reaches for his smartphone to read news or check e-mail.

In fact, Sexton said, he finds himself reading more online these days and buying fewer magazines.

"Basically, I'm walking around with a minicomputer in my pocket," he said. "And it's a part of me now, an appendage."

Reinforcing behavior

Such a digital connection can have its downside. The perils of obsessive smartphone use have been well documented, including distracted driving and the stress of multi-tasking. CrackBerry, a term coined a few years ago, is telling.

The smartphone, said Meyer, a cognitive psychologist, can be seen as a digital "Skinner box," a reference to the experiments of the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner in which rats were conditioned to press a lever repeatedly to get food pellets.

With the smartphone, he said, the stimuli are information feeds.

"It can be powerfully reinforcing behavior," he said.

"But the key is to make sure this technology helps you carry out the tasks of daily life instead of interfering with them. It's about balance and managing things."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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