Analyzing Mobile Phone Choice by Age Is Risky Business

Are iPhones used primarily by more mature mobile users who crave ease of use? Are Android phones more popular among the young, techie and cost-conscious? CIO.com's Tom Kaneshige has discovered there are no simple answers.

In a Microsoft Windows Phone television commercial, a brawl breaks out among guests during a wedding that pits iPhone and Android users against each other. One of the Android users tells an older iPhone user, "Aren't you a little young to have an iPhone?"

Analyzing Smartphone Use

It's a swipe against older people, like my father, who fear new technology and cling to the iPhone for its simplicity. These older folks are the same ones asking their children to reset the clock on the DVD player after a power outage.

Conversely, the thinking goes that younger people, like my son, tend to be technically savvy with less disposable income. They're supposed to prefer the cheaper Android phone that rebelliously breaks down the barriers of Apple's walled garden.

[Related: 15 iPhone Apps Millennials Can't Live Without]

Now a Forrester report debunks these ideas in striking fashion: Younger Baby Boomers, aged 48 to 57, own Android phones over iPhones more than any other generation, including Gen Z, Gen Y (or millennials), Gen X and, on the older side, older Baby Boomers and Golden Gen. Also, just as many Gen Z-ers own iPhones as those that own Android phones.

operating systems, OS, Android, iOS
Forrester Research

Forrester surveyed 31,719 smartphone owners in the United States and found that 47 percent of younger Baby Boomers own an Android phone as their primary mobile phone compared to 33 percent who own the iPhone. This represents the largest gap among the generations.

Almost equally as startling, there was no gap among Gen Z-ers, the youngest generation polled. Only slightly more Gen Y-ers own an Android phone than an iPhone.

[Related: 5 Millennials-in-the-Workplace Myths Busted]

What's going on? It's no surprise that Android ranks higher in almost every generation considering its overwhelming marketshare, but the difference in comparison to the iPhone defies conventional wisdom on both sides of the spectrum, young Baby Boomers and Gen Z-ers.

There are many inferences we can draw from Forrester's findings; chief among them, stereotyping generations and their buying behaviors is risky business.

Forrester analyst Julie Ask is quick to point out that these findings are about ownership, not preference. This means that young Baby Boomers might have wanted an iPhone but bought an Android phone instead because of some special factor or circumstance, such as cheaper cost or the availability of a stylus pen or the Android's bigger screen that makes text more readable for middle-aged eyes.

Perhaps a decision was made solely on a single app that the buyer favors and the platform supports.

[Related: What You Need to Know to Hire, Manage and Market to Millennials ]

Now consider the findings of Gen Z, where there is an equal number of iPhone and Android owners, according to the Forrester survey. Most industry watchers naturally assume that Android phones play better in this market segment. After all, Android phones are much cheaper than top-shelf iPhones, and this young generation doesn't have a whole lot of disposable income. They're also tech savvy and not afraid of a new interface.

Then again, many Gen Z-ers still live at home and let their parents pay for their phones. They might also have part-time jobs with little to no expenses, making their entire income practically disposable. The iPhone is largely considered a better gaming platform, and maybe this factored into the results as well.

Then there are the tweeners. My son is a young Gen Y-er and recently traded in his Android phone for an iPhone. Why? The Android phone was kind of slow, he says. He also got a part-time job, along with being a college student, and could now afford it.

While Forrester's survey results are surprising and a bit hard to explain, it's a good reminder about the complexities of the smartphone buying decision and that individuals are not summed up by the generation they live in.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com

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