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Smartphones go from gadget to necessity

By Steve Lohr

New York Times News Service

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 Gartner, a research business. Widely anticipated new models like the Palm Pre, which went on sale nationwide on Saturday, will help fuel that growth. Meanwhile, total cell phone 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.

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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 E. 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 — to not have an e-mail address.

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.

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 cell phone 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.

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