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Teens Peer Ahead

Having trouble getting through to your teenager? Maybe he’s moved to CyLandia-and maybe you’re next.
September 18, 2001

Parents, a Moscow-based organization is enlisting your teens in a covert communications network that eludes most teachers and authority figures. Members download their instructions via the Web and pass messages among themselves using wireless handheld devices.

Okay, Cybiko, Inc. isn’t exactly the KGB. And its objective is to promote sociability, not socialism.

Partially funded by AOL Time Warner, it makes Cybiko Inter-Tainment Computers that let teens meet, engage one another in multi-player games and blip instant messages back and forth over the 900-megahertz radio band. While most of its development team lives in the shadow of the Kremlin, marketing is based in Bloomington, IL.

The company claims to have outfitted hundreds of thousands of youngsters with these wireless handhelds at $100 a pop, selling through major retail outlets such as Target and Toys “R” Us.

About the size and shape of a walkie-talkie, each Cybiko comes in one of four hot colors. It includes a black-and-white LCD screen, full keyboard, navigation buttons and a megabyte of memory for starters. Cybikos also happen to be full-featured personal digital assistants with the usual trimmings: personal information management software, a scientific calculator, spell checker, photo viewer and MP3 player.

The company has produced more than 425 free games available for download from the Cybiko Web site. But that’s not really what the company is about.

Not Just Games

“We’re a peer-to-peer communications company, not a gaming company,” says David Robak, managing director of Cybiko’s Advanced Technologies Group. “We looked at the loss of social interaction and the isolation of Internet use and concluded that there needs to be a way to let people interact the way they used to when they gathered at the local coffee shop or diner or watering hole.”

Cybiko picked teens for its first audience because they easily master complex technology and weren’t being well served by other handheld makers.

The company is benefiting from teenagers’ high interest in pagers and cell phones and from the instant messaging and peer-to-peer file-sharing revolutions. The convergence of these trends inspired Moscow entrepreneur David Yang to come up with Cybiko when he was laid up in the hospital and disconnected from his PC for a couple of weeks.

Meet ‘N Greet

The main pastime for Cybiko owners is the daily care and feeding of little Tamagotchi-like freebles, called Cy-Bs, in an artificial intelligence-driven alternate universe called CyLandia. A kid is totally responsible for his Cy-B through all the stages of its little life-about 90 days for each game.

The ultimate is for your Cy-B to grow up to be CEO of a company and make megabucks in the stock market. But that can’t happen unless you beam him or her over to a friend’s device to establish your Cy-B’s “sociability quotient.”

Teenage Cy-Bs can hop over to as many as 10 other devices where they make friends, get smarter and date. Eventually, they spawn Cy-Babies (the game mingles the genetic sequences of their parents to produce a unique creature every time).

Teens also use their Cybikos to break the ice at the mall or other public venues. A Cybiko starts vibrating and counts others within 150 feet indoors or 300 feet outside; its Friend Finder service will interrupt whatever you’re doing if another owner with similar interests comes within range. Then you can play games or pass messages before physical appearance comes into the equation.

“It’s safe, anonymous; you can be who you want to be,” claims Robak.

School Tool?

Teens also use the machines to track the comings and goings of friends and teachers, and to send personal messages during school.

Other Cybiko features could, theoretically, help with school collaboration. (Teens can swap e-mail, photos or other files over the Web by linking the handheld to the serial port of a PC connected to the Net.) But school authorities don’t universally welcome Cybikos.

“It’s about a 50-50 acceptance rate,” says Robak, “depending on whether the school views the devices as educational or disruptive.”

Hard Costs

Cybiko charges nothing for operating system, application and game upgrades. There’s no airtime fee, monthly service charge or expensive game cartridges. Memory upgrades and accessories are all very reasonably priced-for example, a set of headphones costs $5.

That’s not the razor/razor blades paradigm of most high-tech marketing outfits. But Robak insists that the company can survive on hardware sales alone.

In October, it will introduce a $150 Cybiko Extreme with 2.5 megabytes of memory, extended battery life and other features that will let Cybiko offer premium games for nominal charges. And Cybiko is in negotiations with cellular phone services, says Robak, so users could gain simple voice capabilities.

Peering into the Wireless Future

Cybiko plans to license its svelte operating system and peer-to-peer software to enable low-cost games, commerce and business applications on other handhelds and enterprise networks. It can provide relatively inexpensive and low-power routing services atop many backbones, including the more resource-intensive Bluetooth and Wi-Fi (802.11b) wireless protocols.

Analysts like Stamford, CT-based Gartner Group predict an explosion in handheld users as these network infrastructures are built out. Peer-to-peer software will allow games, songs, movies and other content to be distributed over very wide areas.

Many teens already do just that with their Cybikos, which often are turned on four to eight hours a day, reports Robak. His firm believes that wireless handhelds will eventually be more common than PCs-and that this time, teens are in the driver’s seat.

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