Are smartphones the savior in a floundering economy?

I'm beginning to think that it will be the smartphone that helps keep the mobile operator industry afloat during these tough economic times.

A new ChangeWave corporate IT purchasing survey reveals that U.S. businesses are putting the brakes on spending, with record pullbacks occurring in this quarter and going forward. Yet, the corporate smart phone market continues to show growth, with Research In Motion maintaining its huge lead, and Apple continuing to make inroads into small- to medium-sized businesses. The survey revealed that 35 percent of respondents said their company plans to buy smartphones next quarter, a one-point increase from August.

Analyst firm J. Gold Associates, after polling 340 large and small companies in North America and Western Europe, found that businesses would "dramatically increase their deployment of mobile applications on smartphones to the detriment of laptops."The firm's study found that the median number of smartphones would grow 30 percent in one year and 100 percent within three years. And access to corporate applications from smartphones would increase 71 percent in one year and 196 percent in three years.

The phenomenon appears to be playing out in the consumer market as well. Research firm comScore recently found that in this struggling economy, lower-income Americans are turning to Apple's iPhone 3G, using it as an all-in-one device for Internet access and entertainment to save money. 

In short, these trends point to significant data usage revenues for operators. A recent J.D. Power and Associates report said the increasing demand for advanced features in smartphones means users are spending more money on data plans and services, even in a struggling economy. They are spending about $80 a month, according to the study. Just a year ago the average spend was $72.

But can operators sit back and bask in the glory of the things they've already done to stimulate the market, such as steeper smartphone subsidies and all-inclusive data pricing plans since they are a cheaper Internet access and entertainment vehicle? Or do they have to do more to stimulate this segment as things get worse for Americans? --Lynnette