It's the same battle we fight with ourselves over cars.
Do we wait until we've paid off our current vehicle then immediately trade it in for a new one, or are we so impatient that we upgrade while still owing money on the previous car? The alternative is, of course, driving the old one until the wheels fall off?
We face the same choice when it comes to our smartphones. Most people are either on two-year contracts or two-year installment plans for their devices. That means if we wait 24 months, we can upgrade without a penalty. If we want to do so sooner, it's going to cost us. Wait longer than two years and it's the equivalent of driving around a car you have already paid off.
Of course, in the same way that shiny new car might tempt someone to trade in early, the latest and greatest smartphone might do the same thing. It's a war between being practical and making fiscal sense and having the shiny new toy. And, it's actually a fight that the majority of Americans are winning.
What does the data say?
A majority of U.S. smartphone users, 54%, said that they will upgrade their phone "only when it stops working or becomes totally obsolete," according to a recent Gallup survey. The second largest group, 44%, said they upgrade as soon as their cell phone provider allows it, usually every two years. That leaves only 2% of the American smartphone audience that chose "when a new model is released, usually about every year."
This data, which is from a Gallup Panel survey conducted in April and May with 15,766 U.S. adults who say they have a smartphone across all 50 states, suggests that mobile carriers' efforts to entice customers to upgrade to new and "better" models more frequently is not yet catching on with smartphone users. That's either a heartening, albeit surprising, show of fiscal responsibility from the American people or a sign that smartphone makers are not coming up with compelling enough devices.
Which brand users upgrade first?
It's probably not very surprising to learn that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone users are the most likely to upgrade every two years. According to Gallup, 51% of iPhone devotees trade up for the new model as soon as their wireless carrier allows them to compared to only 40% for users of Android phones.
Apple has done a good job building this demand by releasing a major revamp of its phone every two years (while pushing out a new model with smaller changes in the alternate years). Of course, Apple may have another advantage according to Gallup.
"A reason for these differences among iPhone and Android users and reasons for upgrading could be income," the company wrote. "Among those in households earning $75,000 or more per year, 55% own an iPhone, while 40% own an Android. Android users may not be as willing to upgrade because of the expense."
A pattern is clear
While people clearly want new smartphones, there's nothing on the market so compelling that it makes more than a fraction of us willing to spend more to trade up. The vast majority of Americans are doing the fiscally prudent thing and keeping their phone for two years or longer.
It's possible that these numbers could change if Apple or another player released a phone that did something drastically different. For now, though, when improvements seem to be incremental and even low-cost smartphones are pretty good, people seem willing to be patient.