SAN FRANCISCO - The lust for Apple's gadgets appears to have cooled across the nation even among the company's most sought after bumper crop segment: students.
Apple has wisely focused on student discounts over the years in a bid to create something of a gateway-drug effect with its technology among youth. The idea is to get them hooked early to buy bigger later. Early signs now show the buzz is wearing off.
"My students are making me think that when the iPhone 6 comes out there's going to be a lot less excitement," says Richard Sloan, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley.
Across the country, there's a divide between Apple's iOS and Google's Android, the top smartphone contenders. In August, Nielsen reported that 56% of consumers who purchased phones last summer went with Android devices.
At Georgia Southern University, a "vast majority use iPhones," says Alex Cook, an iPhone 4S user and a junior studying information technology. "I honestly feel as though it's more of a trend than anything."
A survey performed by Survey Monkey for USA TODAY of nearly 200 U.S. consumers - more than half ranging from 18 to 44 years of age - revealed that 79% of respondents' opinions about Android products have changed to "much cooler" or a "little cooler."
"Coolness is a function of having the coolest products in the market," says Allen Adamson, managing director of branding firm Landor Associates. "The challenge Apple has is that now everyone's phone looks like an iPhone."
Survey Monkey respondents were divided on their opinions of Apple, but the largest segment, 38%, responded that Apple products were "a little less cool."
That's not to say that Apple has yet become the outcast of the popular school cliques - but its must-have fervor is fading into a love-hate status.
"The iPhone is still on most teens' lists for their next phone," says Eli Blumenthal, founder of TeensTalkTech and a student at Baruch College at The City University of New York.
For some college students, price may be a breaking point, a position where Android devices have Apple beat.
"Apple products are very well put together," says Jonathan Chien, a junior in computer science at MIT, who sees a growing number of Android phones on campus. Chien uses an iPod because the cost of smartphone data plans is too high for him.
"Regardless of the device, it's about which apps are available and the affordability" of the device, says Greg Voakes, general manager of HackCollege.com, a website that offers college advice, with an emphasis on technology.
In November, Google announced that it had reached 700,000 apps in Google Play - its app marketplace - which tied that of Apple's App Store.
Another growing perception prevails as well of Apple: It's no longer the hip little rising challenger. Its gargantuan growth now positions it bigger than both Microsoft's and Amazon's combined market capitalization.
"Americans typically root for the underdog. Apple is no longer an underdog - Apple is now the establishment," Adamson says.
Whether the nation's young consumers see a good underdog story in Research In Motion's BlackBerry 10 debut remains to be seen. "The BlackBerry 10 is supposedly going to be a nice phone," says student Cook. "But I'm not holding my breath."
By Scott Martin and Kenneth Rosen