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What teens can teach you about tech

Teens are fascinating creatures. They offer some excellent insights about technology, and not only about what is "in"--though they're a great measure of that.

Last week, I attended a few panels at an SDForum event titled "Generation Tech: Plugging In With Teens," and I learned two things. One, I hate commuting and am perfectly happy to keep spending obscene amounts on rent to live in the city where I work. And two, teens are fascinating creatures. They offer some excellent insights about technology, and not only about what is "in" (though they're a great measure of that). What is most eye-opening is what a testament they are to the exponential progress of technology. The thing is, I wasn't in college all that long ago--I used a computer to write my term papers, owned a cell phone (with a B&W screen), and had a Friendster account. But my friends and I shot photos on film and worked out with Walkmans--the cassette-playing kind. And yet here we are only five years later and these teens and young adults have pockets full of digital electronics. They don't remember that annoying dial-up modem sound--indeed, some of them do most of their e-mailing on a handheld device (namely, Sidekicks and BlackBerries). Their mobiles have color screens, onboard IM clients, and built-in cameras. Not one teen mentioned Friendster, and most thought MySpace is passé. Way to make a girl feel old there, kids.

Two panels at the Generation Tech most captured my attention: one was a high school panel, which I merely observed, and the other was a college student panel, for which I was the moderator. Both panels offered some revealing data--I've included some of the most interesting and/or amusing here.

  • Five out of the six high school panelists would "die" without their cell phones. The sixth preferred not to talk on the phone and paid for just 60 minutes per month for emergencies only. One teen professed that he had lost his phone three times in the past month and waited no more than two days to replace the gadget. In the 24 to 48 hours sans mobile, he felt "completely cut off" from his life.

  • Every student on the high school panel owned an iPod--not an MP3 player, mind you, an iPod. So that's one-hundred percent of this particular population sold on the Apple player--is that a testament to trendiness or quality? Or perhaps both? You decide. I would have loved to get the teens to expound upon their choice but, alas, I wasn't moderating that panel. I was happy enough to note that at least they were using a standalone MP3 player and not listening to music on their phones--too risky, I deduced. What if they drained the battery and couldn't communicate with their peers? Tragedy, no doubt.

  • The college students, on the other hand, listened to music on a variety of devices, including cell/smart phones (notables: the Chocolate and the Slvr) and even--shock of all shocks--a Cowon MP3 player. In fact, I didn't hear one of them mention the iPod, though the iPhone was certainly at the front of their minds.

  • The coolest gadget on the market today? The iPhone, hands down. Never mind that it's not technically on the market yet. The college panelists universally included the iPhone in their answers to not only that question but also one that I posed regarding convergence devices in general. As for what features they'd most like to see combined into one device, the answers varied from e-mailing clients to Web capability (specifically for getting directions and making dinner reservations), but always combined with calling capability. And like anyone, students want improvements to usability as well as enhancements of current features such as battery life.

  • On a phone-related tangent, I asked the college students if they used a landline at all and if so how often. The response: what's a landline? Not really. Actually, most don't bother hooking up a landline at all during the school year (when living with roommates) and instead rely solely on their cell phones. Exceptions included extremely long calls (like to customer service centers) and instances where it was an important call and cell phone reception was unreliable (I believe Cingular and T-Mobile were mentioned).

  • Finally, unabashedly showing my bias, I inquired about music. Did they still buy CDs or did they get all their music online? If so, where? I also asked for their thoughts on DRM. Well--I hate to tell you this, music labels (OK, no I don't)--the majority of the students are getting that "new, hot song" from LimeWire, BitTorrent, and other file sharing sites, mostly due to DRM hassles. They also mentioned really hoping the Apple-EMI DRM-free deal would work out, which leads me to believe they would start taking a more, er, legal approach to their music acquisition if it does.

  • Just as I was opening the panel up to questions from the audience, one of the panelists hit us with an addendum. "Oh yeah," he said, "I also wanted to mention this site called Pandora." He then went into detail about the Music Genome Project and the way the site works (you enter an artist or song name, and Pandora creates a constantly streaming playlist/station of similar-sounding artists or songs). What surprised me was not only the detail he had about the site, but also that every other panelist nodded emphatically and noted that they too listened to the site on a near-daily basis. I had never imagined Pandora had such popularity among the college set. Of course, we're not exactly talking about a highly-varied cross-section of colleges here: the panelists were all Bay Area-based, attending SCU, UCSC, Berkeley, and Stanford. Plus, they were necessarily tech-savvy, given the subject matter of the panel they had been invited to attend. And I feel it necessary to mention that they were also all male.

    Still, this Pandora revelation piqued my curiosity about the digital listening habits of college students in general, and those of the overall CNET readership. So if you feel so inclined, please post a comment describing your own audio inclinations, or even answer any of the questions herein that catch your fancy. Notably: What's the coolest device on the market? What features do you most want to see in one device? What are your feelings on the DRM dealings of late? And, perhaps most importantly, would you "die" without your cell phone?