Time to Adapt Android for Seniors - Mobile World Live

Time to Adapt Android for Seniors

07 JUL 2010

Mobile entrepreneur Ewan Macleod and his wife have a four week-old baby. They want to regularly send photographs of their first-born to their grandparents, but Macleod hasn’t been able to find the ideal solution, so he is developing an iPhone app himself.

Speaking at the Senior Market Mobile Conference in London this week, MacLeod accused the mobile industry of not innovating enough when it comes to meeting the demands of people in their later years.

Right now, the segment of the mobile industry targeting seniors seems to be meeting the needs of people with failing faculties, rather than their wants. At an exhibition adjacent to the conference, there were a clutch of companies, such as Emporia, Doro, Binatone and Geemarc Telecom, promoting handsets specifically aimed at the visually-impaired, hearing impaired and people with little dexterity. These phones typically have very large numbers on their keypads, extra loud ringtones and amplified reception. They do what they do very well.

But MacLeod’s point is that the elderly are interested in more than just loud phone calls and large font text messages – they also want reliable multimedia services that are straightforward to access and use. Multimedia messaging (MMS) is supposed to be the way to exchange photos, but MacLeod regards it as too fiddly and too flaky. “There is only one phone that really delivers – the iPhone,” he told the conference. MacLeod’s grandparents now have iPhones and he is working away on a tailor-made app that will enable them to receive albums of photos that are easy-to-view and share with their friends.

Why MMS isn’t delivering

It seems extraordinary that seven years after MMS was first launched and with more than 200,000 apps in Apple’s App Store, MacLeod is coding his own solution to send some photographs to his grandparents. Although MMS is popular in some countries, such as China, it certainly hasn’t caught on in the way that text messaging has. With its restrictions on file sizes, MMS isn’t necessarily the ideal solution for sending photos to the visually impaired, especially if they plan to view them on an iPad, a digital photo frame or another device with a large screen. My service provider here in the U.K., for example, says there is a size limit of 300 kilobytes on picture messages.

In any case, many of the handsets specifically designed for the elderly have small, monochrome screens, which aren’t suitable for displaying photos. Surely, many seniors would rather have a large, touch-screen, high-contrast, display with a robust haptic keypad?

As well as MacLeod, several other speakers at the conference also hailed the iPhone, with its famously-intuitive user-interface and large touch-screen, as one of the best options for the elderly. But Ian Hosking, a senior research associate at Cambridge Engineering Design Centre, said that even Apple’s meticulously-designed handset sometimes falls far short of what people with weak eyesight need. Moreover, the iPhone is simply going to be too expensive for many people.

Still, MacLeod is surely right to look to software, as much as hardware, to tackle the issues faced by the elderly. In my view, Android, in particular, has a great opportunity in this market. Its openness means any phone maker is free to create a straightforward user-interface designed specifically for the visually-impaired or people lacking in dexterity. As long as such handsets, which could resemble any other Android touch-screen phone, are discreetly-labelled and sensitively-marketed, users wouldn’t be embarrassed to get one out in public. What’s more, Android-based handsets tend to be cheaper than the iPhone, broadening the potential market.

With the population in the northern hemisphere aging fast, anyone who can create a slick senior-orientated user-interface for Android could be on to winner.

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