Girl Meets App: Desperately Seeking Free-dom

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Since I am indisposed at the moment, I thought it fitting to turn today's column over to my trusty assistant and occasional guest star.  I turned my 17-year-old daughter loose in the app store last weekend just to see what happened. I agreed to let her take my cast-off 3G to use as an iPod Touch on the condition that she reported on her activities so that my readers and I could get a micro-sample of teen priorities when it comes to cell phones. She became my teen filter on the app store. Curiously, she never even thought to hunt for apps via iTunes, which was open on her laptop throughout. The on-phone store was the only resource she even considered. Search-download-and-synch was not even an option to her.

After a day or so of app store play she walked me through her travels.  

Much to my surprise,  her iPhone wallpaper was a dim and very old classic painting. "I love the Baroque period," she said.

I didn't see that one coming. A SpongeBob wallpaper, Robert Pattinson I would get. But Michelangelo Caravaggio? "I love Caravaggio," she gushes, and I am starting to wonder if she is putting me on. But apparently the art history course she is taking is having an effect.  I was flush with pride. Dreams of an Art History professor in the family filled my head. I was doing the math on how to pay for four years  at Yale and help her through the Ph.D.


"That one is of a bloated dead whore," she says matter-of-factly. Okay, now I really didn't see us approaching that curve. I am starting to dread where this sojourn into teen tastes was headed and now I was wondering if I should lock this iPhone up -- along with her. According to my budding historian, in order to satisfy a Church commission to depict the death of the Virgin Mary, Caravaggio stole the corpse of a drowned prostitute to use as a model and then bragged about it in his usual swaggering manner.  "He was cool - a real criminal." OK. The upside is, I really couldn't afford Yale anyway.


Perhaps the most important thing about the, um, "bloated whore," is that my daughter procured the image by circumventing any paid wallpaper routes. She searched Caravaggio on Google Mobile and copied and pasted the image as wallpaper. This quickly became a theme: the resourceful use of any and all nonpaid sources of content.


Not surprisingly, her first apps were social media: AIM and Facebook. But Facebook mobile was less impressive to her than to many of us: "The layout is okay, but it took me a while to figure out there was a main menu and how to get to my notifications list." Perusing the status updates (the default for most of us) is less important to her than the direct messages, since she and her friends are using Facebook as an online one-to-one messaging system. She likes AOL's AIM app because it offers the option of pushing notices of new messages to her even if she is in other apps.

While the iPhone doesn't multitask, its new unified push messaging system makes it seem that way. Interestingly, her correspondents on the other end complained that the AIM app did not let them know when she was typing a reply, which is the indicator to others that you are engaged in the conversation. "They say they don't know if I am really here or not."

It was clear to me very quickly that instant messaging done well on a smart phone could be a very big deal for her and her crowd. Mobile IM has been problematic because of technical limitations of feature phones, but as the IM experience on mobile approaches the desktop model, it offers distinct advantages. In just a day's time, my daughter was using mobile AIM as much as any app. Actually, and this still amazes me, she spent hours on our couch with the laptop open to Facebook, her own cell phone working the SMS channel, and the iPhone working AIM and the App Store.

Well, except for the time she spent with "SpongeBob Diner Dash." She clocked  two hours playing the demo. While I was impressed by my daughter's critical acumen throughout her evaluations of the various apps we covered, when I asked her why she singled out this game she shot me a quizzical look. "It's SpongeBob, Dad. It's SpongeBob." With an audience like that, I think SpongeBob should just go IPO.

There is a class of apps that emits a high-pitched sound at a frequency only audible to people under 20. I have seen these apps pitched to adult users as prankish teen-repellants. Watch your teenager flee from the room as you plead ignorance about that painful screech only they seem to be hearing. According to my daughter, teens have turned the tables on us; her peers at school with iPod Touches and iPhones use these apps regularly in classes to annoy one another without the teacher's knowledge.

That creative resourcefulness of teens is at once laudable and annoying. Teen researchers and teen-oriented content providers had told me before about the importance of free services to this segment. It is precisely this search for free that leads so many teens into sites with predatory advertising and spyware. But watching my daughter so aggressively root out the free alternative to everything was eye-opening. Fees, no matter how small, were simply walls to bounce off of in search of unpaid alternatives, while for me 99 cents for an app that looks even vaguely interesting seems a small impediment to satisfying my curiosity.

"The AIM ads really bug me." Actually it is not just their presence that irritates her but the placement. They pop up at the bottom of the app so when she is scrolling past messages or picking a correspondent at the bottom of the screen for a response, she accidentally taps the ad. I ask if she would pay for the app rather than get ads. "I might -- but I won't." 

I am sure there are teen marketers out there who are thoroughly familiar with this behavior, but I was fascinated by how nuanced and deliberate my teen girl's hunt for free became as I sat there and watched her accept and reject apps. She distinguished between good and bad freemiums, for instance. There were a number of apps designed to change the color of your charging battery icon, for instance. But most of the apps offered only a few solid color battery icons and made you pay for the more decorative ones she really wanted.

She resented the game demos that truncated her play too soon. She seemed to have some kind of ethic of what was fair and not fair in the freemium realm. If she deemed the bargain unfair, she just went on to find someone else who would give her something more for free. I guess it is possible for a freemium program to shoot itself in the foot if it offers too little, but it is unclear whether the more generous demos are rewarded at all by attracting more users to try and then buy.

Thinking that it is time for the reality of the adult media marketplace to assert itself (a capitalist teachable moment), I tell her, "You know dear, someone has to pay for that stuff somewhere along the line, either by showing you ads or by getting your money. You can't insist on things having no cost for you and then gripe about advertising. You can't get everything for free."

She gives me a shocked, woe-is-me,my-Dad-in-an-idiot look and says, "Sure I can!" She snaps her head back to the iPhone, juts her chin forward as if preparing to launch a dragster. "Just watch me!"


2 comments about "Girl Meets App: Desperately Seeking Free-dom".
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  1. Nelson Yuen from Stereotypical Mid Sized Services Corp., October 30, 2009 at 11:28 a.m.

    It's not just teenage girls; the "freedemic" is a perfect representation of how Y gens and the younger consumers perceive real value today. It's a conceptualization of open source to usability in the light of economics.

    (I'm still in free-itis mode myself. It's because I'm in my twenties still.)

    The concept of open-source/free-itis is the concept of cost to usability. Younger generations sub-consciously distinguish a hierarchy for need. The economics free-itis and open-source are very similar in that something FREE that addresses a need is completed to a subsistence level. Like a bell curve; think of the background your daughter was looking at. It wasn't that there was a HUGE demand for the Michelangelo Caravaggio background, it was that she DID NOT WANT the default background. Asking her to pay for something when her need is addressed in a thousand different ways is like asking you to pay 20 dollars for a Coke when Pepsi, Sprite, Gatorade, Poland Springs, Hi-C, Seven Up, Mountain Dew, and Fanta is 1.00.

    Trying to tie my own thoughts together so I don't sound like a moron....

    The younger generation evaluates the fulfillment of needs like a searcher trying to solve a problem online.

    The 1.00 you pay for an app may make fiscal sense, but it doesn't make sense in terms of opportunity cost. To a teenager, time is ALWAYS MORE abundant than money. I'm forgoing a dollar to solve a problem one way meanwhile I could solve the same problem in 10,000 different ways for free if I just spent 15 more minutes searching?

    We are always thinking of value in dollars and cents. That's not how kids see things. I sure as hell refuse to pay for a song I like EVER. But I'll spend 89 dollars on a concert ticket or autograph or club opening to go see my favorite indie artist because there is a finite opportunity to see the individual live. There is no finite amount of free music online.

    (Hope I made sense. I'm writing inside a blackberry right now, and I gotta be honest, i suck with smart phones)

  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost, October 31, 2009 at 1:53 p.m.

    @ Nelson - damn good for a Blackberry. I think your core insight is quite right. Younger people have more time than money and the investment in time to find free stuff is a worthy trade off. And yes, I think my daughter comes at the default screen of the iPhone as a problem that needs to be solved.

    If we better understand that dynamic then it seems to me we can have smarter fremmium tactics too.

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