They’ve become as clear a symbol of status and self-expression as the clothes you wear or the car you drive. With almost 700 different makes and models of mobile phones listed on Amazon — and that’s just the official ones that come with a service — the phone you choose to place on the coffee table next to your latte and alongside your car keys is a declaration of how you see yourself, as well as the tool you use to talk to others.
So what does your phone say about you, and what can you tell about their owners when you’re glancing at the phones on the tables of other café denizens?
According to one recent survey of 20,000 Australian mobile phone users, different brands of mobile phone allow their manufacturers to better identify target markets. Samsung users, the survey found, tend to be conservative types aged over 50, and with an average income of AUD$34,000 (about USD$33,000). LG users were mostly young women aged between 14 and 24 who struggle with mechanics and watch little pay TV. And it’s no surprise that Antipodean Crackberry addicts are aged between 35 and 49, and earn six-figure salaries.
But that’s just Australia, and when the details get as esoteric as the claim that Oz’s iPhone users don’t like gardening, you can’t help but wonder how useful — or credible — those survey stats are likely to be.
The iPhone — Not Just for Geeks
If you’re not responsible for managing a mobile manufacturer’s advertising budget, you can afford to come to come to more stereotyped conclusions about the users of mobile phones. Apple, for example, has long had a reputation for making products for geeky types. While everyday computer users powered their PCs with Microsoft’s familiar Windows, Macbook users could look down their noses and enjoy better functionality, design, reliability and stability with Mac’s OS systems. They might have paid 50 percent more and could shop for less software but at least they weren’t using products from the Redmond monopolist.
When it comes to Apple’s mobile phone though, the opposite is true. Fanboys might love Apple but geeks use Android — and true geeks turn to Linux or Symbian which together make up just 4 percent of mobile operating systems used in the US. While a Mac on a desk might suggest creativity, specialization and geekery, an iPhone on a café table suggests that the owner wants easy usability over everything else. They don’t care that the camera is sub-standard or worse, that the App Store is a walled garden that restricts developers in order to ensure a minimum standard. They just want a phone that works. And lets them play. An early adopted iPhone then might suggest someone keen to keep up with the latest technological advances, but it’s more likely to mean that the user likes the results of technology without caring too much about how it’s put together.
BlackBerry Users Really are Rich
Apple markets its device at everyone from computer gamers to music freaks. They even expect that the machine will be used to talk to people. That RIM expects its Blackberry phones to be used to arrange business meetings is borne out by the figures. According to Millennial Media, a mobile advertising network, Blackberry users earn 13 percent more than the average smartphone user, and 43 percent live in households with incomes of more than $100,000. Just over half have a college degree, just under half are women, and 65 percent are employed full-time. The fact that the most common apps downloaded into BlackBerries tend to be for weather and navigation, while iPhone users head for the games categories, suggests that BlackBerry users have different things on their mind. You might have learned as much by looking at the user’s suit and briefcase, but just spotting a BlackBerry’s shiny, tiny keyboard should tell you that its users is educated, employed and probably richer than you.
The iPhone and the BlackBerry are phones as well as operating systems. Android however is an operating system that is used on a wide range of different models which makes its choice much harder to generalize. Google itself offers a list of 24 models that use its mobile operating system, from Motorola’s RIM-like CHARM to Samsung’s EPIC. Tech blogger Mitch Wagner suggested that many Android users may simply be people who don’t like AT&T, the iPhone’s carrier, but when he asked his readers why else they chose an Android phone, many said they did so for the OS’s openness. As Wagner noted, that suggests a major misunderstanding about Android which carriers are able to nail down as tightly as Apple’s OS4.
A more likely reason that someone bought an Android phone, he suggests, is that it works. The phone does what it needs to do: it makes call without dropping them, provides access to the Web in a way that’s comfortable and easy to use, and lets the user download funky apps that keep them entertained just long enough to enjoy their toy. While the ability to tether might have persuaded some of them to buy and the thought of rooting around in the OS might have appealed to a handful, people who put an Android-powered phone on the table next to their soy frapuccino — whether it’s a Droid, an Evo or a Hero — are most likely to be those who aren’t suited, care less about usability than functionality, and just want to be able to speak to their friends and colleagues. They won’t be fanboys and they may not be executives. They’re people who probably looked first at the carrier and the payment plan, and only later at model itself. They may not even know that they own an Android. They’re also likely to be male.
Whether they’re worth talking to though will depend on the kind of case that they’ve used to decorate their phone and, more importantly, the ringtone it makes when someone calls. Anything that sounds like Lady Gaga will tell you everything you ever want to know about the owner of that phone.