KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The love affair began last winter.
Annie Sorensen had needs. For business, mostly. But she came to learn that her personal side could stand some nurturing, too.
A blogger, a podcaster, a landlord and a distributor of nutritional supplements, Sorensen needed a mobile connection to the Internet.
For her, romance came with a 3.7-inch touch screen, a 550-megahertz processor and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard.
The Motorola Droid smart phone could steer her through life with Google Maps, document their relationship at a rate of 24 frames per second and post it all wirelessly to Facebook.
"I love technology," said Sorensen, 29, who lives in Kansas City. "This is so functional for me. ... I guess I'm a Droid person."
Once we defined ourselves as Deadheads or jazz aficionados, as part of the Dodge or Chevy clans, as Macs or PCs. Increasingly, it is the electronics in our pockets that say something about who we think we are.
With people searching for the cellular badge that fits them best, carriers now calculate the part of the psyche that mates man with machine. That is only escalating the pressure to seduce customers with the latest and greatest, lest they stray to other companies.
Sprint Nextel Corp. can't keep its HTC Evo, a smart phone of the Android persuasion, in stores. This week, the Overland Park, Kan.-based company released the Epic. (The company hypes the newest of Samsung's Galaxy S series as "a ridiculously fast and amazingly powerful amped-up superphone.")
The Epic is targeted first at techies who are sold on the popularity of the Android operating system, a slide-out keyboard and a phone that is capable of speeding along on Sprint's 4G network to buy and rent movies. The company hopes that once the geeks buy, others will want to join the Epic club.
The phenomenon of identifying with our handsets found full bloom with the iPhone. It was the gadget that truly made the mobile Web intuitive enough for the nongeeks among us to navigate the Internet from a barstool much the way we had done for years on our desktop PCs.
The iPhone became a singular status symbol of the times.
Beyond giving users license to complain about AT&T's network -- like members of a tony country club griping that the bunker sand needs fluffing -- the iPhone armed that smart set with a device of elegant design. What's more, it suggested their lives blended effortlessly with the latest technology had to offer.
The iPhone proved wildly useful. It dripped with cool. The rest of the cell-phone world -- the software guys, the carriers, the handset makers -- tried mightily to catch up.
The tone with which the iPhone crowd now insists that the late-arriving smart phones don't compare only suggests that they do.
BlackBerry's e-mail-centered world has expanded with its Torch model to include all the Web has to offer. Google created the Android operating system, which phone makers from Motorola to LG, from Samsung to HTC have fashioned into a variety of oh-so-slick touch-screen miracles.
To be sure, the smart phone remains a status symbol not just because it is wondrous, but because it is uncommon. Three in four people with cell phones somehow still manage to survive without a smart phone.
For a still-small segment of the market, the pursuit of the perfect phone is the clinching factor. Surveys by Forrester Research have found that 6 percent of customers will switch carriers -- and even pay hundreds of dollars to escape existing contracts -- to land the ideal phone. The industry says that many consumers who visit wireless stores or the phone departments of stores such as Best Buy do so every month.
Don't be fooled by the standard $200 price (Sprint is asking $250 for the Epic). The actual value of the gadget probably is closer to $600. You're making installment payments hidden in your monthly service bill. At a minimum, you will be out roughly $2,200 over two years. Depending on your carrier and your usage, that actual cost can swell another $1,000.
No wonder, then, that consumers develop such an attachment. You would be a chump to pour three grand into a gizmo that stinks.
Jackie Beck -- a technical writer and the author of the frugality blog MoneyCrush -- warns against loading up with the latest in smart phones "just because it comes out" when other bills deserve priority. But Beck is quick to speak of the utility of a mobile Web machine, and she confesses that her husband adores his Android phone and she loves her iPhone.
"I'm pretty addicted," she said. "I wouldn't go without it. ... Besides, I'm a girl, and it comes in white."
Is it any surprise that people would adore a device that can do so much? Fifty years ago, computers with less processing brainpower filled entire rooms. Today, something the size of a pack of cigarettes can almost instantly tap into much of the accumulation of human knowledge or play the cutest kitten video you've ever seen.
"It's quite plausible to imagine the personalized connection people develop to a gadget that can do all that. We know that they sleep with these things next to them," said David E. Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. "For much of the population, we create our self-identity to a great extent through the possessions we choose to acquire."
Smart-phone users certainly have brand preferences. The Nielsen Co. reports that 90 percent of iPhone users won't switch to another handset. And even though slightly more people purchasing their first smart phones are opting for Android phones -- partly because the iPhone is available only on AT&T and Android phones can be found at all major carriers -- still seven in 10 won't leave the Google operating system.
"People have very strong passions about this. They love their iPhone or they think Apple is the devil and would never buy an iPhone," said Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester (and a decided iPhone guy).
Even for those who don't let phone selection trump all when picking a carrier, it remains an important choice, Golvin said.
At Sprint, David Owens, the company's vice president of consumer marketing, said handsets are among three critical factors people look at when picking a cell-phone company, along with the price of service and what they think of the company's network and customer service.
Sprint argues that even with a $10 monthly premium on its data-devouring 4G phones -- Evo owners tend to download three times the bits as other smart-phone users -- its service is cheaper than its competitors. The analyses can differ depending on usage, but industry experts concede Sprint has a pricing edge.
Now with the Evo and the Epic, Sprint sports a pair of phones that have been the lust objects of many techie websites.
BlackBerrys remain associated with MBA types and executive wannabes, people who have become accustomed to its ways. Android phones have been adopted by a younger set -- people who are newer to the touch-screen experience and not under the iPhone's spell.
That makes the iPhone -- a device that debuted in 2007 -- old school. Or worse: Your mother's phone.
What is unclear is where the loyalties ultimately will lie. Is a person who buys a Droid X from Verizon Wireless going to identify with Verizon or Android? Will iPhone users drop their AT&T contracts if Apple strikes a deal with Sprint or T-Mobile? Is an Evo user going to stick with HTC phones or just any Android phone?
"These things are too new to know," said Timm Bechter, a telecommunications analyst at Waddell & Reed. "We think the market (for smart phones in the United States) might still double. Who knows where the loyalty will be with those late arrivals?"