For Puzzled Seniors Only

Cell and e-mail services for older people who are tech-challenged


Suppose I offered you a mobile phone that does nothing but make and receive calls. Or a printer that simply gets and prints e-mail messages. Sounds nutty, but this pretty much sums up the clever Jitterbug phone from GreatCall and the HP Printing Mailbox from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) and Presto Services. Both meet real needs by doing very little.

The sweeping generalization that older people can't cope with today's technology is silly, but clearly there are seniors who are baffled and intimidated by computers and complicated phones. The Jitterbug and Printing Mailbox are for them. Both products sacrifice functions that you or I might consider essential, but what they offer in return is simplicity itself.

The Jitterbug Dial is a large Samsung clamshell phone. Buttons are big and clearly labeled. Text on the display is also large and easy to read. It has no menu button, since there are no menus, but it has a dedicated on-off button. A rubber gasket around the earpiece makes it more comfortable and helps exclude ambient noise. The Jitterbug even simulates a dial tone when it's ready for you to place a call.

Up to 15 names and numbers can be programmed into the phone when you order it, and more can be added by pressing 0 to reach a GreatCall operator. Press the up or down button, and the phone displays the contact list one name at a time and asks if you want to dial. Press "yes" to dial or "no" to go back to the contact list--or you can dial any number manually. The even simpler OneTouch version of this phone has just three buttons: One is custom-labeled and calls a prearranged number, the second places other calls through an operator, the third hangs up.

SERVICE PLANS ARE TAILORED TO THE NEEDS of light phone users. The Jitterbug costs $147 plus a $35 activation charge and $10 a month for a plan that provides only for emergency calling. You can buy a monthly calling plan starting at $15 for 30 minutes, or prepaid time in chunks of 100 minutes for $25. If you pay for a year's service in advance, you can get substantial discounts on the phone that increase with the number of minutes you buy.

The $150 hp Printing Mailbox, which is designed for people who do not have computers, goes even further in simplifying the other main mode of communication these days: e-mail. It's basically a low-end inkjet printer with a modem built in. To set up the service for an aging friend or relative, you enter the required information on Presto's Web site. The printer is assigned a e-mail address that is associated with the phone line to which it is attached. Based on a schedule that is decided during the setup, the printer dials Presto one or more times a day, with no human intervention, to retrieve and print any messages sent to the address, along with free daily or weekly newsletters or puzzles that you order.

The Presto service, which costs $10 a month or $100 a year, provides a tightly controlled environment. There's no spam problem because the service will deliver only mail from a list of preapproved senders. The administrator of the mailbox can specify the type size used to print messages and even monitor ink and paper supplies via the Presto Web site.

Obviously, the fact that the recipient cannot reply to messages is a limitation. But this is a product designed for folks who just want to get pictures of the grandchildren (or more likely, great-grandchildren) and messages that can be answered, if necessary, with a phone call. And the Presto service does this very well.

It will be interesting to see whether we baby boomers, who now spend much of our lives around computers and cell phones, will find ourselves baffled by whatever is the latest in technology when we reach our 70s and 80s. Right now, however, clearly a lot of people have been left behind by personal technology, and these well-designed efforts to help them catch up a bit are most welcome.

For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Tech Maven at

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.