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Today’s technology scene seems overheated to some. Apple is the most valuable company on earth. Software apps are reaching tens of millions of users within weeks. Major technology names like Research in Motion and Nokia are being undone by rapid changes to their markets. Underlying these developments: the unprecedented speed at which mobile computers are spreading.

Presented below is the U.S. market penetration achieved by nine technologies since 1876, the year Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. Penetration rates have been organized to show three phases of a technology’s spread: traction, maturity, and saturation.

Those technologies with “last mile” problems—bringing electricity cables or telephone wire to individual homes—appear to spread more slowly. It took almost a century for landline phones to reach saturation, or the point at which new demand falls off. Mobile phones, by contrast, achieved saturation in just 20 years. Smart phones are on track to halve that rate yet again, and tablets could move still faster, setting consecutive records for speed to market saturation in the United States.

It is difficult to conclude categorically from the available data that smart phones are spreading faster than any previous technology. Statistics are not always available globally, and not every technology is easily tracked. Also, because smart phones have not yet reached market saturation, as electricity and television have, the results are still coming in.

The Sudden Rise of the Smart Phone

BellSouth launched the IBM Simon, with its rudimentary touch screen, back in 1993, but the era of the smart phone in America really began in 2002, when existing PDAs took on the ability to make phone calls. That year RIM shipped its first BlackBerry with phone features, Handspring launched its Palm-OS-powered Treo line, Microsoft shipped its Pocket PC Phone Edition, and mobile data technology such as GPRS became increasingly widespread.

Four and a half years later, in late 2006, the quarter before Apple announced its now-iconic iPhone, only 715,000 smart phones were sold, representing just 6 percent of U.S. mobile-phone sales by volume. Up to that point, the smart phone was spreading not much faster than personal computers had in the preceding decades, and more slowly than radio decades before.

That changed when Apple’s iPhone sold 1.12 million units in its first full quarter of availability, despite prices starting at $399. Year over year, the market share of smart phones almost doubled, to 11 percent of U.S. mobile-phone sales. Now Nielsen reports that smart phones represent more than two-thirds of all U.S. mobile-phone sales. Nielsen also reports that 50 percent of all U.S. mobile-phone users—which equates to about 40 percent of the U.S. population—now use smart phones.

These figures show that smart phones, after a relatively fast start, have also outpaced nearly any comparable technology in the leap to mainstream use. It took landline telephones about 45 years to get from 5 percent to 50 percent penetration among U.S. households, and mobile phones took around seven years to reach a similar proportion of consumers. Smart phones have gone from 5 percent to 40 percent in about four years, despite a recession. In the comparison shown, the only technology that moved as quickly to the U.S. mainstream was television between 1950 and 1953.

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