New Phones for an Old World

I had a humbling experience yesterday. I learned what it means to get old. It was a grim realisation.

I’ve always been interested in devices that allow elderly, infirm or disabled people the opportunity to enjoy all the benefits of mobile technology. In 2006 I bought a phone from Emporia, a little-known family-run Austrian firm, after meeting them on a little stand tucked away in Hall 2 at Mobile World Congress.

The phone was a clunky curiosity with big keys and a black screen with text presented in orange, which I later found out was optimised for people with cataracts. When I showed the phone to people they typically focused on the relatively poor hardware. Some of my elderly, but still active, relatives told me they felt the phone’s simplistic design insulted their intelligence. They were old, not stupid.

On reflection, I think everyone I who saw my Emporia phone missed the real magic, which lay in the device’s clever software. It let users (or other people) remotely add phone-book entries, set up emergency alerts by voice or text, and a host of other things.

Fast forward four years and I notice that there are now lots of devices targeted at elderly or disabled users on display at Mobile World Congress. Emporia, the pioneer of the category, has a big stand in the main Hall 8 venue. Last year it shipped half a million units and this year it’s aiming for 1 million.

Emporia has fixed the “old not stupid” hardware problem with some sharp new designs and its phones go from strength to strength on all aspects of usability, especially for the elderly.

Ben Wood trying Emporio's ageing simulation tools

Working closely with Cambridge University, the company has developed tools like the ones I’m wearing in the picture on the right. They simulate the effect of old age. In an instant, I was 80 years old, with impaired vision and arthritic hands that could barely pick up my phone, let alone use it. A life-changing experience, for sure.

As the population in Europe and North America ages, the need for specialised mobile devices will become acute. Phone-makers will have to adapt if they want to appeal to a generation that has grown up with mobile devices, but can’t use them in the ways they used to. And I predict we’ll see growing pressure from governments as access to mobile services becomes a fundamental right. Small firms like Emporia have a strong lead in accessible devices now, but I wonder how long that will last as giants like Nokia and Samsung turn their attention to the problem.