The mobile industry has got too used to a solution looking for a market. Solutions like Push to talk and UMA. So when a market comes along looking for a solution, it becomes hard to see the obvious.

Fifteen years ago I started evangelising the idea of mobile phones for the senior market. I talked about building phones with enhanced audio, hearing aid support, big buttons that were easy to see and easier to press. Friends and colleagues would say “that’s just the thing for my grandparents.” Today I’m still evangelising, but people say “that’s just the thing for my parents”. It won’t be long before it’s just the thing for me.

The difference is that by the time that happens there will be plenty of mobile phones for the senior market. It’s happening. Slowly, quietly, without the brouhaha of social networking or location-based services, we are seeing mobile phones which meet the needs of the aging population.

Life expectancy is improving, or at least increasing, rapidly. But our faculties don’t keep up. We become less dexterous. Our hearing drops off and our eyesight starts to decline from our teenage years.

Getting it right isn’t just about making the buttons and screen big. It is understanding the way in which the degradation happens. Design and colour can be as important as size.

And it isn’t just about devices. Services are vitally important. At the recent Mobile Phones For The Senior Market conference, Arlene Harris, the founder of US MVNO Jitterbug, talked about how it was her background in working for operators and understanding services which made her company’s offering complete. In Japan, NTT Docomo has been offering its Raku-Raku service for many years.

There is a latent demand for these devices and services. It’s been disguised by the phone industry concentrating on youth and the senior market feeling that mobile technology is not for them. In return the mobile industry has come to believe that seniors don’t want phones, or at least provide low ARPU. We’ve seen that where operators have set that mindset aside they have been successful. It needs the right device (that is to say, not Vodafone Simply), good retail training and a lot of courage, but get those things right and you’ll have a significant number of new users with decent ARPU.

It’s not a small niche either. Research by the University of Cambridge shows that it addresses 40 percent of the adult population.

I’m convinced that the work done by the likes of Emporia, Doro and Jitterbug will become mainstream. But then maybe I, like you, am just getting old.


Simon Rockman, Special to MBB. Simon heads up the GSMA’s Mobile Money Information eXchange.