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Teenage dream devices

Smartphone makers see youth market as key proving ground

Mary Angjeli (left) and Dora Agali, both 13, played on Agali’s iPhone. The number of teens who use smartphones has nearly tripled. Mary Angjeli (left) and Dora Agali, both 13, played on Agali’s iPhone. The number of teens who use smartphones has nearly tripled. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Taryn Luna
Globe Correspondent / July 8, 2011

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Thirteen-year-old Dora Agali didn’t like her last phone, a Samsung Star, because she could only do one thing with it.

“The last one didn’t have any Wi-Fi at all, and basically I only used it to call people,’’ she said.

Now the South Boston middle schooler is much happier with her iPhone 4, which she uses two hours a day to play games and check e-mail and Facebook whenever she wants.

As smartphones become ubiquitous and more affordable, they are leaping into the hands of teens, and mobile makers have taken notice. The number of teens with smartphones nearly tripled to 4.8 million in April from 1.7 million during the same period in 2009, according to market research firm ComScore.

Currently 28.7 percent of teen cellphone users carry smartphones, and analysts expect that more than 50 percent will have one next year.

AT&T Inc. is releasing two phones this summer that will cater to teens - the HTC Status and the LG Thrill 4G. The Status allows users to instantly share information to Facebook with the click of a button, and the Thrill is a smartphone, featuring 3-D graphics (no glasses needed). Both will run Google Inc.’s Android operating system.

When Apple Inc.’s newest operating system, iOS 5, comes out this fall, it will come equipped with iMessage, a service that will go head-to-head with Research in Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry Messenger service, which teens love.

Matt Thornton, a senior analyst with Avian Securities, an information technology research firm in Boston, said the growing teen market is an important demographic for companies like Apple, Google, and RIM.

“Obviously, capturing teenagers when they move to their first smartphone is a push by these companies, and they want to lock them in,’’ Thornton said.

Once smartphone users find a platform that fits their needs, they are less likely to switch, he said. IPhone apps purchased through iTunes, for example, cannot be transferred to an Android device, and users who switch phones have no choice but to rebuild their application portfolio from scratch, Thornton said.

But satisfying fickle teens can be difficult. This young audience cares less about allegiances and more about the phone’s IQ.

A smartphone should act like a handheld computer, allowing users to surf the Web and download applications.

“For teenagers, it doesn’t matter what the brand is, but what really matters is what the phone does for them,’’ said Freddie Benjamin, research manager for mobileYouth, a research firm that studies youth marketing and behavior. “It is the key to their social life, it is an extension of them.’’

BlackBerry is a case in point. RIM, better known for being in hands of high-powered executives, dominated the teen smartphone market about a year ago with a 40 percent share.

RIM’s popularity was a product of price, availability, and the popular Messenger service that texting teens are innately drawn to.

But the popularity did not last long. RIM slipped to 23.8 percent of the teen smartphone market as Google’s Android operating system skyrocketed to a 36.3 percent share this year, according to ComScore.

Google’s strategy is to get Android in as many hands as possible through deals and low prices, said Mark Donovan, senior vice president and senior analyst at ComScore. From the HTC Thunderbolt to the Samsung Dart, Android is available in more than 90 different models of phones at varying prices in the United States.

“That’s the kind of aggressive markdown and merchandising you don’t see with the iPhone,’’ he said.

But the iPhone has a built-in following because teens are familiar with Apple’s operating system through their iPods and are drawn to the variety of applications. The company, which sells more smartphones than any other manufacturer overall, has 29 percent of the teen market, a slight increase from a year ago. Two possible reasons: the iPhone 3GS dropped to $49 with a two-year contract with AT&T, and parents upgrading to the iPhone 4 are passing down their older model.

It is too early to tell how teens will view the iMessage application, which allows iPad, iPhone, and iPod users to send free text messages. Among many features, the application shows users when their message is read and when others are typing.

RIM declined to comment on its efforts to maintain teen users.

Regardless of which smartphone system teens are using, studies show they take full of advantage of the modern cellphone - more so than adults. According to ComScore, teens are more likely to use applications, play games, text, take and share photos and video, and access social networks directly from their phone.

That same study also found that few teens pay their own cellphone bills - only 9.3 percent, while 76.5 percent are on family plans.

Taryn Luna can be reached at tluna@globe.com.