College students fastest growing smartphone segment

Topics: College of Communication Information and Media, Emerging Media

October 22, 2009

The percentage of college students owning a smartphone spiked in just a few months due in large part to the rising popularity of the iPhone, says a new study by Ball State University.

The recent survey of 270 college students found that 38.5 percent own smartphones, up from 27 percent in February. The study also found that various respondents reported owning 49 models of smartphones, which offer advanced capabilities with personal computer-like functionality. The most popular device is the iPhone, used by 18 percent of students. 

Apple unveiled a faster iPhone in June and cut the price of the previous generation of the device to $99. Those moves boosted iPhone sales from July through September to 7.4 million units, half a million more than in the same period of 2008, sending the company's profits soaring by 47 percent in the most recent quarter.

"There is no doubt that the iPhone is very popular with all its applications that college students love," said Michael Hanley, an assistant professor of journalism and director of Ball State's Institute for Mobile Media Research. He has conducted twice-a-year surveys on the use of mobile devices by students since 2004.  

"However, Google has plans to release several new smartphones in the coming months with the Android operating system," he said. "I think we'll see those smartphones become very popular as well."

Studying the impact of smartphones and other mobile communication devices is a major focus of Ball State's Emerging Media Initiative (EMI), a $17.7 million investment focusing the university's historic strengths in this area to accelerate benefits to the state of Indiana and give students innovative and entrepreneurial opportunities.

"Smartphones are changing the game when it comes to mobile communications among college students, who are among the first people to embrace new technologies," Hanley said. "College students are attracted to smartphones for a variety of reasons, including their ability to easily access the Web."

Hanley's study also found that nearly two-thirds of smartphone owners use e-mail on their devices, up 5 percentage points since February. 

"Until smartphones came along, e-mail use was dropping off because regular cell phones, which are known as feature phones, had limited e-mail functions," he said.

"Now, college students are using e-mail on their smart phones for both their personal and academic needs. Smartphones allow them to e-mail video, photos and other items more easily than feature phones, and I think e-mail use will continue to grow for the next several years."

The study also revealed:

  • About 84 percent of smartphone users have a device with a GPS locator, and half say they use the system to find the location of products or services.
  • Nearly 60 percent of smartphone owners have downloaded an application in the past few months.
  • About 24 percent of smartphone users have downloaded or purchased music, and about 21 percent have obtained mobile video games.

The ability of smartphones to link users to popular social networking sites may be another major reason college students are buying the devices in large numbers. The survey found that about 65 percent of respondents use their smartphones to access social networking sites.

"The growth in popularity of social networking has coincided with the smartphone applications that allow access to Facebook, MySpace and Twitter," Hanley said.

"People can keep up with what their friends are doing as well as exchange messages and find out the latest trends among their age group."

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