Kinder, Gentler Cell Phones

Carriers cater to youth -- but the elderly need simpler handsets


An Aug. 15 column on special mobile phones for young children ("Cell phones for the sand lot") drew an emotional response from some readers. There seem to be a lot of people whose needs are not being met by existing wireless offerings, including the elderly, the disabled, and folks who just want an easier way to make and receive calls.

"Basically, I want to be able to make an emergency call simply and reliably," wrote Katherine H. Long of Boerne, Tex. "I would gladly pay a premium for a phone that was not cluttered with functions I do not want. In a true emergency, seconds count, the light may be poor, and emotions affect using the phone."

Many factors share the blame for cell phones' increasing complexity. Faced with a stagnant market for voice calls, wireless carriers have looked for growth by pushing data services such as photo transfers and e-mail. Handset makers have obliged with a race for new features, requiring additional buttons and screen menus even as the phones themselves shrink. And the carriers, like TV advertisers, worship the youth market and have shown little interest in customers who want a minimal service plan and plain handset to make an occasional call.

For those whose physical or mental disabilities preclude the use of a standard handset, the Firefly from Firefly Mobile might be the best bet -- because two big buttons that can be programmed to dial numbers make it very easy to use. But adults may not much like the Firefly's brightly colored case or flashing lights. That presents an opportunity for service providers and cell-phone companies to come up with a Firefly-like handset with big, easy-to-see buttons that would be especially helpful to elderly people suffering from arthritis, poor vision, or cognitive impairment.

IF YOU ARE HELPING AN AGED RELATIVE or friend find the right phone, keep in mind that even a handset with no service must be capable of placing a 911 call. So you might pass along an old handset -- or you can put your friend in touch with Phones for Life, which makes donated phones available free of charge to the disabled and elderly. One catch: These handsets don't always make it easy to dial an emergency call. If that's a problem, consider the SafeGuardian from Clayton Communications, an emergency-only phone with a big red 911 button. But the price, $39.95 a month with a one-year contract, is steep for such a limited function.

Many middle-aged customers without any particular disabilities seem frustrated by their mobile-phone choices. "Even for those of us with normal mental functioning, it can be very difficult to parse the bells and whistles on newer cell phones," wrote Aline Henderson of Washington, D.C. "I carry a cell just for emergencies. And at age 54, I find it hard to read small text on tiny buttons."

Phone companies in Europe and Japan take such input seriously. Vodafone (VOD ), Europe's largest carrier, offers two models called Simply, from French handset maker Sagem. They feature limited functions (just voice calls and text messaging), big buttons, and a large, easy-to-read screen. TU-KA Cellular, a subsidiary of Japan's KDDI, offers a model that looks more like a typical cordless phone with a big dial pad.

For now, however, no U.S. carrier has announced plans for simplified phones. So if you desire something less complicated, and models like the Firefly aren't appealing, you should probably look at giveaway or low-cost phones that are included with service plans. They are generally bigger and simpler than the more expensive models. Bar-type handsets often have bigger and easier-to-use buttons than flip phones. But these still fall short of what many people desire.

There is an underserved market out there for simplicity. I can only wonder why wireless carriers hungry for growth haven't leapt at the chance to give customers what they want.

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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