Don't Be Lame

The term "fieldwork" generally brings to mind biologists, baboons and binoculars. For Microsoft executives, it conjures another unpredictable animal: the teenager. Three years ago the company began hiring anthropologists to observe teens in their natural habitats, from Seattle shopping malls to London schools to Seoul street corners. The goal: to see how they used technology in their daily lives, and then to turn that information into new products--not just for kids but for the rest of us, too.

Socializing, multitasking, going mobile, making a personal statement: the ways teens use technology are influencing industries from telecom to electronics to software. Microsoft, IBM, Sony, Philips, Nokia and other firms spend more time than ever keeping tabs on such behaviors. Already kids have driven trends like text messaging, instant messaging, blogging and gaming, and have informed the more subtle--but arguably more important--peer-to-peer technology, a type of collaborative computing (such as MP3 file sharing). Ultimately, their influence may extend to new ways of working, shopping and socializing online. "New technology is by nature experimental," says Alexander Linden, research director at Gartner. "Kids have the time and the inclination to experiment."

Across any industry, teens are generally the first to decide what's fashionable, and consumer electronics and software are no different. Japanese teen girls, for instance, are renowned for jumping from fad to cutesy fad. A few years ago, pendants with embedded sensors that went off when other wearers were nearby were briefly a must-have. These days teens are sporting cell-phone antennas that light up and Hello Kitty sleeves for their PDAs. They've also spawned adult styles, such as Philips's key rings with digital cameras.

Kids influence functionality as well as style. Text messaging (or SMS, for short messaging service) via mobile phone is a case in point. Although SMS represents 20 percent of mobile operators' revenue in Europe, Asia and the United States, it was originally designed for phone-company engineers to send messages back and forth quickly and cheaply. Teens pounced on it as a high-tech way of passing notes during math class. Now Nokia is changing the shape of its phones and adding keypads to make text messaging easier. In Japan, NTT DoCoMo and Vodafone have turned picture messaging into a phenomenon. Experts, though, give it long odds of catching on elsewhere. The reason: in addition to being expensive, it was deliberately created and marketed by the industry. Most important tech trends come from kids themselves.

IBM calls this "disruptive technology," and it has influenced several of the company's products. Developers at IBM noticed that students used their wireless notebooks to take notes in the dark during lectures and sent gossipy instant messages during class. Figuring that business people would do the same during presentations, IBM added lights to the ThinkPad keyboard.

The electronics industry is rife with similar examples. Kids' on-the-go lifestyles are fueling the push for longer battery life for gadgets. Their thirst for entertainment on demand has led to back-seat DVD players in cars. Their preference for music singles influenced the design of products like Apple's iPod. Their familiarity with computer-game-style-graphics is encouraging Microsoft to build high-end video into its operating systems.

Kids are having perhaps the most important impact on collaborative computing, which involves groups of people (small or large) coming together online to work, play games or socialize. (Online-music phenomenon Napster is just one example.) File sharing has turned the music industry upside down and spawned counterattacks, like Apple's iTunes Music Store, which sells singles for 99 cents. It's also gotten software developers thinking about other applications of peer-to-peer technology. IBM's forthcoming product Lifeboat will help people reboot their computers using a colleague's machine.

Some experts believe that kids are a test bed for the future of virtual living. Videogamers streaming their voices to each other via the Internet, or using tiny cameras to track and project themselves onto a screen, act as guinea pigs for technologies that may someday allow executives to hold more effective videoconferences. Gamers "spend 20 or more hours a week playing, cooperating on tasks, even earning virtual money," says Gartner vice president Nick Jones. Real-world businesses may tap the market for virtual real estate in online worlds and sell real-life goods to gamers. Rather than heading to the mall, you might send your avatar to a virtual Gap to buy that new outfit you've wanted. It sounds farfetched, but at least one European company is developing the software to do it. Financial-services firms are already beginning to think about how they'd go about marketing to avatars. It's hard to know exactly what new innovations the future will bring. But wherever these young digital nomads go, we are sure to follow.