Disappointing Progress in the Senior Mobile Market

I recently attended a conference focused on mobile phones for the ageing population. I went with high expectations of learning more about a subject that I’ve developed a keen interest in over the past couple of years.

At Mobile World Congress I was profoundly affected by the challenges facing older users and wrote about my experiences. Perhaps my expectations are too high, but I continue to be amazed by the fact that none of the major manufacturers has tried to enter this space. All the signs indicate tremendous market potential. The over-50s are the fastest-growing demographic in Europe and they’re also the wealthiest.

Networks operators should be paying attention to this segment too. Older people use fewer network resources and although they’re likely to be at the lower end of the ARPU scale, they’re fiercely loyal and typically choose devices that require considerably less subsidy than the latest and greatest high-end phones.

It’s a medical fact that to some degree everyone over 50 suffers from deteriorating eyesight and hearing (even if many are too proud to admit it). This inevitably means that using a mobile phone (which in many countries is almost considered a human right) becomes more challenging. On this basis, devices tailored to address these needs must be onto a winner.

An informal survey of the manufacturers represented at the event (Amplicom, Binatone, Doro, Emporia and Geemarc) suggests there’s a market of between 2.5 million to 3 million units in Europe alone in 2010 — and all for brands that lack the marketing and distribution muscle of the top 10 mobile phone manufacturers. The market is likely to be even bigger next year. Some might say that a couple of million units aren’t worth bothering about, but they’d have a meaningful impact on a company like Motorola or Sony Ericsson.

So what’s gone wrong? In fairness, some progress has been made. At least ageing users can now get attractive, well-designed phones such at the Emporia Elegance (right) or the Doro PhoneEasy range (below). Gone are the days of clunky phones with big buttons that verged on implying that users were not only old but stupid.

Maybe the economic downturn has made mainstream manufacturers averse to attacking this segment. Or perhaps they are worried that “senior phones” will dent their brand. Does Nokia want to be synonymous with providing the best phone for granny, when it’s struggling to regain the initiative in high-tier phones? Whatever the reason, I genuinely believe the opportunity’s a significant one, and now’s the time for the big manufacturers to start investing, because whoever gets it right could quickly dominate a lucrative new segment.