Listening To The Kids

The term "fieldwork" generally brings to mind biologists, baboons and binoculars. For executives at Microsoft, it involves the study of another kind of unpredictable animal: the teenager. About three years ago the company began employing anthropologists, as well as teams of young engineers and recent college graduates, to observe teens around the world 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. What they found has not only influenced the development of existing products, it has also led to the creation of new software: the forthcoming threedegrees, which facilitates everything from online practical jokes to virtual sales meetings. "Kids drive technology today," says Microsoft anthropologist Anne Cohen Kiel. "By meeting their needs, we meet everyone's needs."

Does that mean that everyone wants to pass virtual gas to their friend's computer, one of the many options offered by threedegrees? Obviously not. But the behaviors that characterize teens' use of technology--socializing, multitasking, going mobile, making a personal statement--are increasingly influencing what is being developed in industries ranging from telecoms to electronics to software. Microsoft, IBM, Sony, Philips, Nokia and other firms keep close tabs on what kids do with technology. Kids have already been at the forefront of tech 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 technology (such as MP3 file sharing). Ultimately, the influence of kids may extend further, creating new ways of working, shopping and socializing online. "New technology is by nature experimental," says Alexander Linden, an analyst at market-research firm Gartner. "Kids have the time and the inclination to experiment."

Across any industry, kids are generally the first to decide what's fashionable, and consumer electronics and software are no different. At Sony, gone are the yellow and black Walkmans of the past. Today's product lines are inspired by the teen taste for extreme sports, with colors that change every season, funky lines and reflective paints. The company has also picked up on kids' sense of techno-style--products that can be attached to belts or arms and headphones that can be color-coordinated with outfits. "Teens look at technology as a fashion accessory," says Gartner vice president Nick Jones.

Japanese teen girls, in particular, are renowned for jumping from fad to cutesy fad. A few years back, 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. Their behavior has also spawned adult styles, such as Phil-ips's key rings with digital cameras, and Siemens's Xelibri mobile phones, sold in High Street shops.

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 about 20 percent of mobile operators' revenue in Europe, Asia and the United States, it was originally designed so that phone-company engineers could 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 that make text messaging easier. And in Japan, NTT DoCoMo and Vodafone have created a phenomenon with picture messaging. Experts, though, are skeptical about everywhere else. Not only is picture messaging relatively expensive, but it was also deliberately created and marketed by the industry. Most important youth-driven tech trends come from kids themselves.

IBM calls this "disruptive technology," and it has influenced a number of the company's products--including the ThinkPad laptop computer. Developers at IBM noticed that students equipped with wireless notebooks and instant messaging were taking notes in the dark during lectures and gossiping during class. Engineers figured that business people would do the same during presentations, so they added tiny lights to illuminate the ThinkPad keyboard.

The electronics industry is rife with similar examples. Kids' on-the-go lifestyles are a big factor in the push for --longer battery life for gadgets. Their desire for entertainment on demand has led to a growing number of backseat DVD players in cars. Their preference for music singles rather than albums has influenced the design of products like Apple's iPod. Their familiarity with computer-game-style graphics is encouraging companies like Microsoft to build high-end video features into new operating systems.

But kids are having perhaps the most important and far-reaching impact in the area of collaborative computing, which basically involves groups of people (small or large) coming together online--often in real time--to work, play games, socialize or even just hang out and watch a virtual sunset. (Online-music phenomenon Napster is the most widely known 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. Lifeboat, an IBM product in development, will help people reboot their computers using a colleague's machine. Microsoft's threedegrees will allow users to create virtual social spaces so that 10 friends can chat, share photos and listen to music together. Whatever one person sees, the others see as well. The idea originally came out of the youthful desire to socialize in cliques. But it's entirely possible to see how the software, which is still in beta testing, might be used by, say, remote workers, not only to conduct meetings but to create the sort of water-cooler banter that at-home work usually lacks.

Indeed, some experts believe that kids are a test bed for the future of virtual working--or even virtual living. Videogamers streaming their voices to each other via the Internet, or using tiny cameras to track and project themselves onto a screen, are acting 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 Jones. Real-world shops and businesses may tap this market, he says, buying virtual real estate in online worlds and selling real-life goods to gamers. For example, rather than heading to the mall after a bad week, you might send your avatar to a virtual Gap to purchase a new outfit for you.

It may sound farfetched, but already at least one European company is developing a software interface to allow for virtual retail, and Jones is fielding calls from big financial-services companies that want to know how to market to avatars. Meanwhile, the fieldworkers at Microsoft are continuing to watch kids texting on skateboards, playing MP3s while e-mailing their friends and snapping pictures with their phones. It's difficult to know exactly what new innovations the future will bring. But it's safe to say that wherever these young digital nomads are going, we will all follow.