U.S. smartphone ownership eclipses feature phones

The U.S. is now officially a smartphone nation, with 53 percent of all adult cell phone owners claiming ownership of a smartphone, according to a new report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. It’s the first time that smartphone penetration has been reported to eclipse feature phones in the U.S. though the milestone has been predicted for some time.

Pew found that smartphone ownership in February 2012 has jumped to 46 percent of all adults from 35 percent in May of 2011 while feature phone ownership has slipped from 48 percent to 41 percent over the same period. A slim 12 percent of adults said they still don’t own any phone at all.

Pew reported that 45 percent of cell phone owners said their phone is a smartphone while 49 percent said their phone runs on a common smartphone operating system. When combined, Pew said that 53 percent of all cell phone users claim to own smartphones.

Nielsen previously predicted in 2010 that smartphone penetration would move past feature phones by the end of last year but in its latest report, it pegged smartphone penetration in January at 48 percent of all subscribers. The new milestone marks an important turning point in showing how U.S. consumers are increasingly relying on sophisticated mobile computers in their pockets. This has big implications for developers, operators and companies looking to cash-in on always-connected consumers. And it puts more pressure on makers of traditional computers who are seeing their sales slow in the face of rising smartphone and tablet sales.

Pew said 20 percent of cell phone owners said they owned an Android (s goog) device, 19 percent said they had an iPhone (s aapl) and 6 percent said their phone was a BlackBerry (s rimm). Windows devices (s msft) were claimed by just 2 percent of cell phone owners, the same rate compared to May of last year. For its latest results, Pew interviewed 2,253 adults in January and February.

Pew found that smartphone ownership has increased across the board, but is still most represented among college graduates, adults 18-35 and people with an annual household income of $75,000 or more. Among people aged 25-34, 71 percent own a smartphone and 66 percent of young adults age 18-29 are also smartphone owners. 68 percent of people with income over $75,000 own a smartphone along with 60 percent of adults with a college degree. African Americans and Latinos adopted smartphones at a rate of 49 percent each, ahead of whites at 45 percent.

The results still leave a little room for doubt because consumers are not all completely clear on what the term smartphone means. Eight percent of  cell owners said they are are still not sure if their phone is a smartphone, down from 14 percent in May of 2011.

Again, the rise of smartphones is not a surprise if you’ve been charting their growth. But it highlights the rise of post PC devices and shows that our computing methods are shifting. Canalys reported last month that annual global smartphone shipments eclipsed shipments of PCs for the first time in 2011. As PC sales slow and tablets continue to grow, we’re increasingly shifting to a mobile-first world. That means more and more people will be accessing their information from smaller screens and will come to expect that the Internet and all the services it enables will be ultimately optimized for smartphones and tablets.