Cutting the Cord

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Cutting the Cord Do cell phone makers have Generation Y's number? A disturbing TV spot for Nokia hit the airwaves a few months back. An attractive young man and woman sit at opposite ends of a couch, a loud party raging around them, a tray gliding by with hors d'oeuvres. The cool guy shouts something at the babe. She can't hear him. Finally he zips her a message, his cell phone to hers: "Good cheese."

You don't have to be a Luddite to yell at these people to go the hell outside. But, hey, welcome to the Star Trek age. Hit the little Star Fleet insignia over your heart like Captain Picard and you're immediately in touch with anyone you want. Every season, cellular phone technology moves above and beyond mere interpersonal telephony. Handheld Internet access, e-mail, stock trading, downloadable MP3 music files, and games - all lie in wait for the cell phone owner looking to trade up his handset to a world of information and interactivity at his fingertips, wherever he goes. With one in three U.S. consumers now using cellular phones, the mobile communications industry has set about urging current users to trade up to more software-heavy packages, and American teens find themselves squarely trailing the Joneses. Never tell teens that.

Already some high schools have had to ban cell phones, and some reports have kids calling each other on their trendy, new gadgets only a few hallways away. Yet, for all their success in putting their technology in the hands of Americans, cell phone makers such as Motorola and Nokia are acting upon a remarkable market number: Only 25 percent of U.S. residents aged 12 to 19 own cell phones, according to The Yankee Group, well below penetration figures for the general population. They have a long way to grow.

Now accepting the Teen Choice Award for Fomenting Techno-Narcissism: Carson Daly, MTV's square-jawed pimp of all things pop, for Motorola. The company - which did not comment for this story - is looking to its association with Daly to "[drive] consumer demand for Motorola among 16- to 22-year-olds," according to Daly himself, reading from his contract in a September Rolling Stone article. The phone maker kicked off the holiday season with a $15 million campaign for the new V2397 phone, a unit that features a text-based messaging system. In one spot, a mom announces a big surprise for her daughter: a meeting with Daly. But the teen ends up wowed by the phone he is carrying, oblivious to the veejay. Another spot sets Daly as a substitute teacher quizzing students on, "the best way for two people to communicate." Nokia, not resting upon its cheese-indulgent partygoers, similarly inked teen sex bomb Jennifer Love Hewitt to hawk its own V2397 model.

It's a big shift for an industry that in past years has focused much of its attention on on-the-go professionals by way of expensive sports sponsorships and stadium advertisements. But, as worldwide penetration has increased, mobile service carriers such as Sprint, Verizon, Cellular One, and AT&T, have vied for new customers, with calling plans buoyed by the offer of free - and cheap - handsets. When a market is saturated, sales slow, prompting higher-end hardware companies like Motorola to a) persuade existing consumers to: trade up to more digital bells and whistles, and b) identify new target groups.

Teens fit the bill so well, one wonders why Motorola, Ericsson, Nokia, et al. weren't bombarding them with commercial glitz years ago. Even as late as August 1999, Forrester Research found that 34 percent of 16- to 22-year-olds already owned a cell phone, 19 percent expected to get one, and 16 percent would be amenable to purchasing one at prices cheaper than the going rate. Forrester sagely forecast more youth-tailored campaigns focusing on prepaid price packages - such as the now-typical $50 a month for 500 minutes - to woo the teen market, as well as the parents who most often pay the bill. And given teens' penchant for the push-button and need for peer parity, Motorola and Nokia should be aiming dead true.

"Youth and teens are tremendously tech-savvy, far more than older generations," says Knox Bricken, analyst at The Yankee Group. "Sixty percent of teens use the Internet on a daily basis. They're really gadget-oriented. And there's a huge `if-Suzy-has-it-Terri-has-to have-it' factor with kids. We really see Generation Y becoming the pioneers of landline displacement. That is, older generations think of a phone as a place, whereas these kids look at a phone as a person."

What makes Gen Y such a prime tech mark? The groundwork has been laid, as this is the first full generation conditioned to interactive media. In late 1999, an America Online "Youth Cyberstudy" found that 63 percent of 9- to 17-year-olds preferred going online to watching TV, with "communication" the No. 1 reason for logging on. Some 52 percent used the telephonic "instant messaging" function (not surprisingly, an AOL staple).

Now, the group is in transition between the late generation of digital toys - Nintendo, Doom, et al. - that it grew up with, and a wave of more sophisticated "toys" that promise not only entertainment but social interactivity as well. Remember the decades old, pop-cultural stereotype of the teen girl who never gets off the phone? The digital revolution is simply improving her points of access. Note, for example, that Sega's latest game console, Dreamcast, offers an Internet connection. Cybiko, a portable digital planner, offers messaging capabilities, games, and limited Internet access. Even Research In Motion's BlackBerry, a wireless, handheld, e-mail unit touted "for the mobile professional," has become popular with kids.

"Teens and communication just go together, but with this generation more so than others," says Jane Rinzler-Buckingham, president of Youth Intelligence, a youth marketing consultancy and research firm. "They're very reliant on `the group.' It's not so much `don't trust anyone over 30' as it is growing up in a world where there is no nuclear family telling them to be home at a specific time for dinner, and where there are few absolutes. There's no powerful `Oz' anymore. We've all seen the man behind the curtain and all his flaws, in athletes, in school systems, even the president. Not that they begrudge all, the way Gen X does - it's just more of a resignation that `everybody's flawed, so I should just trust people likely to get me.'"

Which makes Gen Y more than fertile territory for Motorola. Bricken expects the market will explode not just by dint of add-ons, such as text messaging, but by broader option packages tailored to youth, such as e-mail, MP3s game features or even game downloads - might we expect a "Game Boy Talk" from Motorola/Nintendo? The Yankee Group projected cell phone penetration of the group to jump to 35 percent by the end of 2000, and forecasts a whopping 68 percent of Generation Y will be wireless by 2005, exceeding total household cellular penetration by 8 percent. "Reach out and touch someone," the old AT&T tagline, has never been more physiologically appropriate or carried such a capacity for multi-tasking.

In sci-fi plots, we've all seen cautionary tales about chips implanted in our heads. Indeed, in just a few years, if miniaturization continues apace and we grow more and more frightened of being alone or idle for too long, those implants may be just another purchase for us to keep up with the Suzies.

The Substitute: In this ad for Motorola, MTV's Carson Daly quizzes students on "the best way for two people to communicate."

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