A selective demographic slice - who's Symbian aimed at in the Western world?

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INQ CEO Frank Meehan got himself into hot water a few days ago for suggesting that "pretty girls prefer iPhone and BlackBerry to Android" - making sweeping statements about demographics always gets quoted and there's usually a backlash of some kind. But, with no mention of Symbian (naturally enough, given Nokia's recent pronouncement), I figured that if Frank could do it then so could I. Read on for my own sweeping (and equally unscientific) demographic analysis, delivered with a healthy degree of hyperbole....

First of all, I should qualify everything that I write here (and everything Frank said) as concerning the Western world. Specifically, the USA, Canada, the UK, much of Europe, and so on. Once you get beyond the above countries/regions, and especially into the developing world, you're into new rules, completely different demographics and, interestingly, strongholds for Nokia, Symbian and Series 40. But I digress...

Party!So, with the geographical caveat above, Frank's assertion is pretty much spot on - a pretty girl at a party wouldn't be seen dead  with an Android - or Symbian - smartphone. For her, it's all about making a fashion statement. The iPhone says that she's fairly well off, stylish and brand aware, the Blackberry says that she's got a ton of friends and a very active social life.

Meanwhile out in the kitchen at that same party, or possibly slouched in a dark corner, or even out in the garden, are you and I. Readers of AAS, followers of the tech world, uber-geeks and proud of it (even if we don't often get the aforementioned girls). We love our Symbian smartphones, we probably also love our Android smartphones (and even our iPhones, as long as they're jailbroken!), and we love playing with them. Fiddling with them. Customising them. Bending them to our every need. We're not happy with 90% functionality - every last use has to be wrung out of them and, to be honest, even then we're not really satisfied. We live in the hope that one day our 'perfect' smartphone will be released and we can then die happy.

Hovering nervously at the party, watching out for damage and anyone using a drink without a coaster, are mum and dad, in their 60s and 70s. They're now well and truly in the mobile phone age, but they're the exact opposite of you and I and only use about 5% of their phone's functions. Their phone was chosen mainly on the size of the text on the display and the legibility and feel of the (physical or virtual) buttons. Or possibly depending on what their son or daughter either also loved or wanted to pass on to them. Symbian is a possibility here, as a hand me down (or should that be 'up'?), as is iOS ("So easy even your mum and dad could use it), but their phone is equally likely to be some feature phone ("I only really want it for emergencies. And looking at my favourite photos of the grandchildren.")

Upstairs in the loft conversion are the teenagers, who wouldn't be seen dead socialising with their parents ("Duh!"). As with the pretty girl above, it's Blackberrys and iPhones as a matter of preference/fashion, but a lot depends on disposable income. If the funds aren't there to buy a Blackberry, let alone an iPhone, then you'll see LG Cookies and Sony Ericsson Walkman phones - but probably nothing Symbian-powered at all.

Party!Getting well and truly stuck into the free beer and wine are the normobs. They work hard and play hard, and as a result have little time left for tech. Bus drivers, secretaries, shop workers, the folk behind society's infrastructure, they just want their phone to work and to have a little fun with it from time to time. Money isn't usually critical and there will be a healthy number of iPhones (with just half a dozen 'novelty' apps and Angry Birds Lite loaded up), Blackberrys and yes, a fair number of Nokia/Symbian devices ("I chose it because I trust a Nokia phone to keep working, no matter what. And this one's got a good camera too!") The latter will usually just be rocking the default applications, this is the use case where critics point to Symbian phone owners not really using the 'smart' functions to any degree.

Finally, dancing and chatting, though going easy on the drink if they're driving, there are the well-heeled 20 to 30 to 40 year old professionals, for whom money is no object and there are currently just two main choices: go Android (if they lean towards tech) or iPhone (if they're still a bit unsure about tech). They know what they should be expecting from a 'smartphone' in 2011 though, they want all their information, all their contacts, all their social feeds, night and day. Their data plans are 'unlimited' and they want 'apps' for every cool new Web 2.0, Internet-age service they have ever heard of - and a few that they haven't.


Hoping that you'll have forgiven the generalisations above, there are a few serious points worth noting.

Symbian, as a smartphone platform, and remembering that this is for the Western world, only really figures in one of the demographics above. It's the same demographic that provided most of the buyers of Psion palmtops and Palm PDAs back in the day and it's the demographic that you, dear reader, also figure in. Not that this is a huge problem (I certainly wouldn't describe the platform as burning...) since it's a sizeable demographic - but it's clear that other platforms now reach out to a wider slice of the populace, for one reason or another.

I can't finish, within this 'party' analysis(!) without rebutting Symbian's critics, who point out that 90% of Symbian smartphones are bought as 'phones' and that they're not used in a very 'smart' way. Agreed. But then neither are an awfully high percentage of Apple iPhones, many of which see only sporadic use of any but the most basic of functions - it seems the common factor is people, here. And I'd further point out that at least Symbian phones tend to come with a very rich application set out of the box. Many 'partygoers' might buy a Nokia phone because of the name and styling but find later on that when they need a podcatcher or email client or photo editor, "Hey, it's got what I need already". 

In the light of recent announcements, I guess I should find room for Windows Phone in my party scenario. Have a look out in the drive, there's a 25 year old in that black BMW playing the latest underground music very loud - he's got a WP7 phone in his pocket but I'm not sure he gets it out much.

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 22 Feb 2011