Mark is fourteen years old, and, as is the case with much too large a portion of Mariposa's adolescent population, Mark has nothing to do -- along with way too much energy with which to do it. Mark often takes out his resentment at this unfair state of affairs by attempting to raise as much dust as possible while racing his ATV at high speed, up and down our earthen avenue.
This is not a good thing. It makes my afternoon walks with my beloved dog, Wolfgang, far less pleasant affairs than they would be, were it not for the coughing fits and stinging eyes that Mark's hell-for-leather passage regularly bestows upon us.
And yet, as annoying as his antisocial activities can be, I have to feel sorry for Mark. At a time when he most desparately needs the company of others his age, the poor kid must settle for the company of the grandparents with whom he lives. It's an artifact of the extremely rural environment here in Mariposa -- too young to get his drivers license, the boy is stuck literally miles from any of his peers.
Nor is Mark alone in his misery. In fact, for teens, isolation is more the rule than the exception in this place where the minimum lot size is five acres, people over 65 years of age make up a larger-than-normal fraction of the population -- and adolescents constitute a correspondingly-smaller percentage.
(According to the 2000 census, there are only 11.8 persons per square mile in Mariposa County. Contrast that with an average of 217.2 per square mile statewide. And 17.2% of the residents here are seniors, as opposed to 10.6% for California as a whole. More tellingly, only 28.4% of the county's households include members under 18 years of age, whereas that figure is 39.7% for the Golden State overall.)
And, while there is a dedicated constituency for school sports programs, 4-H and Future Farmers, Boy and Girl Scouts and other wholesome activities hereabouts, the recreational opportunities for teens who aren't particularly interested in close adult supervision and wholesome, parentally-blessed pasttimes are close to nil. There's no movie theater, no comic book or game shop, no bowling alley or other standard adolescent hangout -- even the local pool room is restricted to those eighteen years of age and older. And skateboarding, the urban outcast's sport, is verboten. Violating the ban quite reliably results in citation of the skateboarder and confiscation of his or her board.
And then there's the matter of community, which is essential to a teenager's sense of identity. Basically, other than for jocks and farmers, because of Mariposa's isolation and remoteness, there isn't one.
But 2.5G and 3G cellular applications just might change that.
And the entire cellular industry -- infrastructure vendors, handset manufacturers and debt-ridden carriers -- desperately needs it to do so.
The fact that the industry is in the dumps is not a secret. Yes, there was a surge of handset and service contract purchasing immediately following the 911 atrocities, but there's every reason to believe that was no more than a blip. The longer-term prospects are declining, right along with the rest of the global economy.
That's why teen trends are both interesting and important. At least, to Thomas Dolby Robertson -- the digital music pioneer who was forced to add his natal patronymic to his famous stage name in order to settle a trademark infringement lawsuit by Ray Dolby of Dolby Labs -- they are.
Nowadays, Robertson bills himself as Head Beatnik of Beatnik, Inc., a company he founded in 1996 to bring music to the Web. He attended DEMOmobile 2001 to flog his company's Beatnik Audio Engine -- an imbeddable player for Beatnik's Rich Music Format -- and to announce that it would be supporting the brand-new eXtensible Music Format (XMF) family announced by the MIDI Manufacturer's Association during DEMOmobile.
Robertson -- whose enthusiastic presentation went considerably over its allotted five minutes -- pointed to the runaway success of SMS (Short Message System -- an instant-message style text service available on GPRS systems) among European and Asian youths as a bellwether of usage patterns to come. (However, since only the SMS sender pays connect-time charges in European and Asian markets, the economics of SMS in the USA are considerably different.)
Robertson -- with his trademark beret covering his equally-famous receding hairline -- bobbed and gesticulated at the podium, as he demonstrated his vision of marketing customizable animated messages and collectible multimedia clips to legions of music-crazed teenagers around the world.
"This kind of thing is already happening in Asia," he told us. "It's going to be amazingly big."
Eventually Jim Forbes, co-host of DEMOmobile, had to shoo the frenetic Robertson -- who clearly was prepared to continue his presentation indefinitely -- away from the microphone, in order to turn the stage over to Cheskin Senior Strategy Consultant Amy Francetic, who put Robertson's trend-mongering in a statistical perspective.
She Blinded Me with Science
Cheskin is a strategic study and consulting firm that's been around for 50 years or so and Francetic is the co-author of its newly-released report on wireless technologies and the youth market entitled "The Wireless Future: a Look at Youth Unplugged". As the former CEO and co-founder of high-tech toy company Zowie Intertainment -- she sold the company to Denmark's LEGO Company in 2000 -- Francetic's youth market credentials are impeccable.
The report itself -- which Francetic summarized at DEMOmobile -- cites eight emerging trends that she and her co-author, Lynn Rampoldi-Hnilo, noted in their survey of over 1000 young people from age 13 through 24:
The 2000 census determined that Americans between the ages of 13 and 24 make up 16% of the total population. According to Teen Research Unlimited, they spent a hefty $155 billion in disposable income last year. And Cheskin's research indicates that 25% of them already own mobile phones.
Bring it on Home
That kids are the future is one of the most thunderous cliches of all time. Still, there's a good reason it's become such a bromide -- it's so obvious a truth that it just can't help itself.
Perhaps more importantly, the generation that fills our schools today is the first one to have grown up on the Internet. IRC, chatrooms and instant messaging are second nature to them -- and there's a good chance that they'll carry those habits right into the workplace, when the time comes for them to join the rest of us in producing wealth, rather than just consuming it.
Their tastes and communications habits are thus going to matter a great deal, for a long time to come -- and Thomas Dolby Robertson and Amy Francetic are trying to make us understand that we'd be well-advised to start paying attention to them now, while their hearts and minds are up for grabs.
It could hardly be a more timely message. If they are to dodge the bullet of involuntary bankruptcy, 2.5G and 3G device and applications developers urgently need a killer app. With the economy still rapidly cooling -- venture capitalist Peter H. Ziebelman calls it a "nuclear winter" -- that requirement is still more imperative.
And my neighbor Mark is exactly who needs that killer app.
In just a couple of years, Mark will have his drivers license. Then he'll be piloting a ton of steel, rubber and glass down our narrow, winding roads -- and I have no doubt that he'll be doing so well in excess of posted speed limits.
In the meantime, he's in dire need of the companionship of his peers. I'm pretty sure his grandparents don't allow him access to the Internet -- they're extremely religious people and they seem to regard it as something of a menace -- so he's basically stuck here by himself.
The right cell-phone application -- a multiplayer game, perhaps, or an SMS-style instant messaging app -- could help him feel connected to his cohorts, reduce his sense of isolation and let him reach out beyond the strictures of his home.
And maybe then he'd be a little less interested in raising dust.
Rod Ghani's comprehensive overview of 3G technology
Alastair Angwin's summary of wireless technolgies and directions
Thomas Dolby's official Web site
Cheskin research study - "The Wireless Future - A Look at Youth Unplugged"
Teenage Research Unlimited press release on year 2000 teenage spending
Peter Ziebelman's firm, 21st Centure Internet Venture Partners' Web site
. . .
A somewhat different version of this work was first published by IBM developerWorks at
(Copyright© 2001 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)