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Friday, March 1, 2024

Americans are boringly predictable in smartphones. Here’s why.

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We Americans are stuck in a smartphone rut.

Samsung and Apple are the top smartphone sellers in the world, but in other countries there’s often at least one other popular brand. Not in the United States.

About three-quarters of the smartphones Americans buy are iPhones or Samsung devices. No other company tops 8 percent. It’s been like that for years.

I’m not knocking your decision if you own an iPhone or a Samsung phone. There are few obvious reasons to pick something else.

But the capitalist in me wonders what goodness we’re missing because two smartphone companies and three mobile service providers are happy (and rich) from America’s smartphone rut.

Breaking the status quo can be glorious. Coke and Pepsi were really the only fizzy drinks that mattered for a long time. Then sparkling water companies like LaCroix and SodaStream changed people’s habits and remade the supermarket drinks aisle.

That’s what can happen when upstarts have a realistic chance to win you over.

Some of you will buy a new smartphone this month. If nothing else, I want us to be aware of how uniquely limited our choices are.

Why America’s smartphone market is so predictable

America’s three giant mobile phone providers (Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T) are the gatekeepers of your smartphone choices. They are good with the dominance of Samsung and Apple and have deals with those companies to push those phones to you.

You benefit in some ways from these arrangements, but they do make it tough for newcomers to break through.

For a glimpse at a few other countries: In Spain and Italy, China’s Xiaomi is the most popular and second-place smartphone seller, respectively, while Samsung and Apple are also big, according to research firm IDC.

There are five or so popular smartphone brands in China and India. Smartphone sales in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East are dotted with a bunch of companies.

IDC research director Nabila Popal said that smartphone markets tend to be more competitive in countries where people typically buy phones separate from mobile service.

By contrast, the vast majority of Americans buy phones from their mobile service provider.

Smartphones got boring while computers got exciting

When personal computer sales fell in the past decade, desperation and competition helped spark a flurry of new ideas.

There are many Windows PCs with smartphone-like features including touch screens or mobile internet connections. Chromebooks — generally lower-cost laptops that are Google web browsers and little else — have swept into American schools and some homes.

Apple now designs its own computer chip brains for Macs, and that’s been a great change.

I just bought a Chromebook laptop that doubles as a touch-screen tablet. I love it so far. That design and software weren’t really available the last time I bought a computer in the early 2010s.

Not all of these newfangled computers are good. But without a gatekeeper like the phone company limiting your choices, there are many options to meet your needs.

There are clever or wacky smartphone alternatives

Smartphone brands that few Americans will buy are pushing the industry with some fresh ideas.

The Dutch company Fairphone designed its $760 Android smartphone with easily replaceable parts and software to last nearly a decade.

In many countries, Xiaomi and other Chinese brands sell Android phones that are far better quality than their relatively low prices would suggest.

Our resident gadget nerd Chris Velazco wrote recently about a small smartphone company called Nothing that tried to bridge the gap between blue bubble Apple messages and green bubble Android texts. Nothing’s attempt was half-baked, but I admire the idea.

Google’s unpopular Pixel has still pushed the envelope with wow-slash-creepy artificial intelligence features.

Google, Motorola and others are trying folding or flip phones that offer more screen real estate in a pocket-size phone.

Most of us shouldn’t and won’t buy those phones. Some of them aren’t sold in the United States, anyway. But those upstarts help keep Apple and Samsung on their toes.

It’s possible that America’s smartphone stagnation is fine. You have options for new or used Samsung and Apple phones at a range of prices.

I still think that our stuck smartphone habits are holding us back from fresh ideas, more choices or lower prices.

If you want to experiment and agitate, try researching smaller phone companies that use exactly the same mobile phone lines as AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile but charge less.

It also doesn’t hurt to look beyond Apple and Samsung smartphones. I get that most of you won’t.

My mission is to make you feel a little antsy about the rut we’re in. We have the Coke and Pepsi of smartphones and not much else. And it feels about as blah as a flat cola.

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