Teens and smartphones: Coolness is key

Texting matters a lot; voice and Web not so much

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Since the teens were more interesting in texting than making voice calls, some in the group said they would like carriers to lower the cost of voice plans, although nobody held out much hope that that would ever happen. Many carriers seem to be anticipating more data use on phones, however, and have begun discussing ways to charge higher prices for heavier data users. (Charges for data use are almost always separate from voice and texting charges.)

Phone by phone, here's some of the reaction from the group:

Kin One and Kin Two

Kin One and Kin Two
The Kin One and Kin Two

Even though most of the teens said they wanted the bigger keyboard in the Kin Two, only Evyn chose one of the Kin devices, favoring the "cuter" Kin One.

The other four had mostly negative reactions to the Kin interface, which has checkerboard-like "tiles" that can be used to mark favorite contacts or social network updates. "It's overwhelming, not organized," said Emily of the overall interface.

Picking up on Emily's comment, Anthony added: "It's like the Forever 21 store -- too much to see." He was referring to a trendy clothing store for teens in a nearby shopping mall that features what the others in the group called "crazy" displays that are filled with so much merchandise that it's hard to absorb it all.

The Kins' novel features, such as the Kin Spot or Kin Studio, were uninspiring to the four Kin skeptics. The Kin Spot allows a user to easily drag data, text or photos to share in e-mail or MMS with up to 51 contacts at a time.

Anthony conceded there might be some value to the Kin Studio, which backs up data, including photos, to the cloud for easy access from a PC or a Mac, complete with a timeline. "I like [Studio], but I'd be too lazy to use that," he said with a laugh.

Evyn said Kin One appealed to her the most, but at a different level than as a phone or a computer. It seemed unlikely she'd ever fire up a desktop computer to check out pictures she had taken with the Kin One in Kin Studio. "I hate computers, and I don't even like technology," she said at one point, almost as a mild reprimand to marketing gurus who view young customers as universal gadget fanatics.

HTC Droid Incredible

/HTC_Incredible
The HTC Incredible

Skylar and Anthony favored the Incredible over the other devices and said they could see using its touchscreen-only keyboard rather than the physical keyboards they have used in the past.

Both said they worried about paying for a $30-a-month smartphone data plan, but they said that the Incredible's ability to run Google Maps and use GPS tools to find, say, pizza shops or stores could be valuable. It might even be possible to replace a dedicated GPS device with an Incredible, they said.

The Incredible's 8-megapixel camera was a big plus, both said.

"Still, I'd want the iPhone if I bought a $30-a-month data plan," Skylar said. As a Verizon customer, she's been unable to get the Apple device, but she said that she's been impressed with her friends' iPhones.

The Incredible's ability to automatically adjust to pre-set home screens for work or play at certain times of the week didn't offer much appeal, probably because a teenager's social world is his or her entire world; their contacts are mostly divided between family and friends, and they have little need for access to work e-mail or business applications.

While Verizon officials have said that the Incredible's 1-GHz Snapdragon processor has been a big draw for gamers and others, that performance wasn't such a big lure for this group.

Anthony said the Incredible seemed physically solid but was light enough to carry in his pocket. "Durability is important," he said. "I beat the crap out of my phones."

Palm Pre Plus and Pixi Plus

Palm Pre Plus
The Palm Pre Plus

Julie liked the Pre Plus, favoring its easy-to-use physical keyboard and clear interface. The entire group said the Pre Plus's ability to serve as a Wi-Fi hot spot for up to five other Wi-Fi devices is a major attraction. "That's cool," several of the teens chimed in.

Emily liked the Pixi Plus, favoring its keyboard and touchscreen and its size and shape. Several of the teens noted how the Pixi Plus seems like an upgrade of the Palm Centro. For Emily, the Pixi Plus might not be the next phone she would buy, but it's clearly different from her LG Voyager, a clamshell phone in a rectangular shape with an ample physical keyboard.

Palm Pixi Plus
The Palm Pixi Plus

All five teens already own older-generation cell phones or smartphones and seem enchanted with the cell-phone lifestyle, even if they are mostly texting with them and aren't prolific Web browsers.

Asked to describe what a cell phone means to them, each teenager used words that were emphatic and personal. "A cell phone is life -- a way to connect to the outside world," said Anthony.

As a postscript to the session, one distinct disagreement in the discussion came when the students were asked whether they consider today's phone styles to be either "boy" or "girl" phones. All four of the young women said they didn't notice much gender differentiation in phone styles, although one noted that a phone in a particular color -- say, pink -- would clearly be a woman's device.

But Anthony strongly disagreed. "You know the Kin One is more feminine that the Kin Two," he said forcefully. "And you'd never see a guy carrying around a purple BlackBerry."

Editor's note: One of the teens in this group is the daughter of the author, and she recruited the other students to take part in the session. The participants were not paid or rewarded for their attendance or comments by Computerworld or Verizon Wireless.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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