A cellphone rings in a Cafe Coffee Day, and a dozen hands reach out for the hip pocket. Hard to believe, but it wasn't always like this.
Just three short years ago, cellphones were still objects of desire for the young. Now, just about every 16 year old seems to have one. What happened?
Several things. Phone companies realised that latching onto the youth was the key to growing the subscriber base. Affordable prepaid cards were pushed aggressively, no thanks to competition from Reliance CDMA.
Rs 330 ($7.50) - which is the minimum monthly prepaid card- is no big deal for a working young adult. Or even the student with a part time job. But there's still a large population of teens entirely funded by parents. And Rs 7000 or $ 160 a year (taking into account airtime charges + a basic Rs 3000 handset) is money a middle class Indian householder usually thinks twice about.
So, how did a non essential expense suddenly become so much a part of life?
A conversation between parent and teen a couple of years ago would go something like this:
Teen: Mom, I need a cellphone.
Mom: I don't think so.
Teen: But Aparna has one
Mom: Aparna is a spoilt brat.
Teen: You have an excuse for everything.
Mom: Look I'll think about it, maybe next year.
Then, parent bumps into Aparna's mother at kitty party and there is a conversation about how there is 'so much peace of mind' now that beti (daughter) has a cellphone. "You know, it's so essential these days in case of an emergency. And so many times children get late from tuitions..."
Aha. There is now a perfectly rational reason to buy your kid a cellphone - without seeming like an over-indulgent parent or one who succumbed to peer pressure. It's not a luxury but a necessity.
The paradox of technology
Parents may feel a sense of security in knowing 'where their kids are', but the truth is - they have less idea than ever before. In simpler times, when you went to a friend's house for a sleepover you left your friend's telephone number behind.
In the cellphone era there's no way to tell where you really are. And when you don't want to be reached, you can always claim the signal was weak or you are out of network coverage. I'm not saying all teens use the cellphone to deceive their parents but many sure do.
Further, there is unprecedented privacy for the young person - especially girls from less liberal backgrounds. No longer can paranoid pappas vet all incoming calls and ask to know why such and such boy keeps calling.
The balance of power has shifted. Calls can be received after midnight on silent mode, with nobody the wiser for it.
It's happened before
Remember computers? Every parent thought he was investing in an important educational tool for his kid. The 'education' bit is true to the extent that merely being habituated to using a computer is an important skill in the job market today. But beyond that, were kids using the computer for essential school projects? Or was it primarily for internet surfing, email, chat, gaming - even accessing porn.
It took a combination of peer pressure ('everyone has one so my Raju should too') and rational argument (after all it is educational) which led to the computer becoming a fixture in every upper middle class household. And of course the drop in prices of computers/ availability of financing was another welcome factor.
I think this is a pattern now being seen in digicams. The average home user shoots 3-4 rolls a year which costs about Rs 1000 in film and processing charges. It will take a decade to recover the Rs 10,000 invested in the digital camera.
Yet, the purchase is usually justified by saying digicams are 'economical' to use - instead of outright admitting I-want-to-have-it-coz-its-so-cool.
Conclusion: If you're looking at the teen market - don't forget the parent. The right mix of (perceived) utility and value pricing is key to a new technology taking off in a big way.
Once the teen is a young adult with an independent income you can hope to sell the feature-rich, status-heavy stuff. But don't bet on it. There's a calculator of cost vs benefit still ticking away in the average Indian brain...