Memetracking: The smartphone is the new car

An old friend once shared a telling (and slightly off-color) story about working for a Hollywood studio. He didn’t have much money and his car was a shabby older model. One day his boss (a successful producer) took him aside and urged him to upgrade for the sake of his professional image: “In this town,” the producer advised with a serious tone, “your car is your dick.”

As crude as this analogy is, the symbolic power of consumer goods as totems of social status is very real. And while cars were once the most powerful icon of individual achievement (especially here in America), the smartphone is emerging as the new global symbol of success among the young and technology savvy.

The Economist (my favorite print magazine) spotted this trend early, filing a story in April 2004 titled, “Why phones are replacing cars“:

Phones are now the dominant technology with which young people, and urban youth in particular, now define themselves. What sort of phone you carry and how you customise it says a great deal about you, just as the choice of car did for a previous generation.

Just a few days ago, the New York Times picked up the thread with a story titled, “Play Flute, Name a Tune (or Make a Call)“:

So your cellphone has a brushed-metal shell, can flip and slide four ways and has more buttons than an airplane cockpit. Big deal. The new status symbol is what your phone can do — count calories, teach Spanish, simulate a flute, or fling a monkey from a tree.

In the almost five years that have passed between the first story and the second, phones have gone from being primarily voice communication devices to fully-functional portable computers. Thanks in large part to Apple’s iPhone and App Store, it is their very “computerness” – the ability to run fun and engaging local applications on a (relatively) large screen – and not just their role as objects of conspicuous consumption – that has turned the smartphone into the status symbol of the moment.

That personal computers and software are now a leading indicator of cool is interesting enough as a social science phenomenon, but it’s equally significant as a vector for investment; even in the current economic downcycle, it’s not hard to see how this emerging smartphone/netbook technology ecosystem will offer a rich vein of opportunity for smart software entrepreneurs and their backers.