New phone opens mobile world to technophobe grandparents

by Adam Plowright

It could be the answer to grandmaĂ‚’s prayers: a mobile phone designed specifically for the over-65s that aims to take the fear out of technology and get the elderly connected.

A small Austrian company shrugged off the buzz of innovation and youth-oriented marketing at the 3GSM mobile phone trade show this week and showcased a simple handset for the growing 'grey market'.

"Our market research showed that the elderly have problems using complicated phones," said Reinhard Handlgruber, export manager for Emporia Telecom, which is based in Linz.

"What they want is a big screen, a big key pad and an easy to use menu."

Emporia carried out market research in rest homes and discovered latent demand for mobile or cell phones from the over-65s.

The handset they developed has no digital camera, Internet access or instant messaging capabilities, but it does include a button to call relatives or friends in an emergency, is compatible with hearing aids and can run on regular AAA batteries.

"There are 110 million people over 65 in Europe and Russia and only 17 percent have mobile phones," according to Handlgruber.

None of the mainstream handset manufacturers has launched an oldies phone, but some appear to have recognised that enthusiasm for new products and flash handsets is not shared by everyone.

Vodafone recently teamed up with French manufacturer Sagem to offer its 'Vodafone Simply' service of easy-to-use phones and simple billing.

US manufacturer Motorola is launching its 'Motofone' model worldwide, an ultra low-cost handset aimed at users in the developing world and those looking for a basic handset in rich countries.

"In Europe we found that it was the unconnected over-50s that expressed most interest in the phone," said European product line manager for Motorola, Andrew Morrow.

"It was those who have never owned a mobile phone because they thought it was too complicated and the display was too small."

Kim Heikkinen of Idem, a Finnish-based mobile phone design consultancy, says that no major manufacturer has successfully developed a phone for seniors who are bamboozled by mobile technology.

"The problem for the bigger brands is that, if it looks like a product for old people then buyers wonĂ‚’t want to relate to it. ItĂ‚’s a difficult marketing proposition," he said.

"But itĂ‚’s an interesting challenge and no-one has done it right yet."

Emporia has sold 50,000 handsets since August, export manager Handlgruber claimed, and the group is currently expanding out of its core Austrian and German market.

Analyst Gavin Byrne of telecommunications research group Informa believes the company has found a niche and the emergence of such a product illustrates changes underway in the handset market.

"I do feel thereĂ‚’s a market for this kind of device," he said. "ItĂ‚’s difficult to quantify, but growth of handset sales is slowing in developed countries and it is a question now of finding segments that are underserved."

Finnish manufacturer Nokia, which has a strong reputation for simplicity, has so far desisted from launching a special phone for the elderly.

The groupĂ‚’s market research has not proved the existence of a significant number of technophobe senior citizens and many elderly people would feel patronized at the implication they were unable to master new technology, company spokesman Doug Dawson said.

Anecdotal evidence might suggest otherwise, with many families including at least one mobile phone hold-out, but the Finnish company believes it has the market covered.

"You certainly donĂ‚’t want to be condescending to this age group, but you need to provide for their needs: intuitive products that are easy to use and take out some of the intimidation of technology," Dawson said.

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