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In mobile phones, older users say more is less

Vodafone betting that people getting up in years want something easy to use

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At a time when cell phones are letting users do more tricks, from video calling to downloading digital music, one of the latest models from Vodafone Group PLC has no camera, no browser and hardly any icons. Instead of being sleeker and cooler than ever, the phone is large and ordinary-looking.

What it is, though, is easy to use, and if Vodafone is right, the market will love it. That's because of who its market is: people getting up in years.

If the battery on the Vodafone Simply, as it's called, gets low, the phone doesn't signal this with a tiny icon somewhere. Instead, on its screen, the words "please charge" appear. If a message is waiting, a light flashes, like in old-fashioned answering machines. To help people who tend to lose their phones around the house and let the battery run down, this one comes with a stand that serves as a place to stow the thing, and charges it while it's there.

Ann Ridley is the kind of customer Vodafone has in mind. A 65-year-old ballet teacher in Claygate, near London, Ridley rarely gives out her mobile-phone number, never uses text messaging and doesn't store her friends' numbers on the phone. "I can't see the numbers, and it's too complicated," she says. The result is that she uses the cell phone for fewer than a dozen calls a year, spending less than $18 annually.

The hope at Vodafone is that when people like Ridley, who said she wasn't familiar with the Vodafone Simply, hear about it, they'll find its ease of use so comforting they'll start to use their cell service more. If so, Vodafone, which collects a fee for each cell phone call, can expect more revenue.

Vodafone isn't the only company — nor cell phones the only industry — trying to shape some products for older consumers or to simplify them. At Ford Motor Co., designers who test-drive prototypes sometimes wear a "third-age" suit that gives them a sense of an older person's experience by means of stiff fabric at the elbows and knees and thick padding at the waist. Ford has made many modifications to cars as a result, from wider doors to more-comfortable seats, says one of its technical specialists, Jeffrey Pike.

Philips Electronics NV, whose many products range from beard trimmers to X-ray systems, has a "Simplicity Advisory Board" of outside experts, and next month will bring out the first products of a companywide simplicity drive. Consumers are saying, "Many products complicate my life instead of making it easier," says the head of Philips's global marketing management, Enderson Guimaraes.

The Vodafone Simply isn't an

attempt to match certain ultra-simple phones sold to the elderly for emergency use, such as one from a France Telecom SA unit that has no keyboard but just three big color-coded buttons linked to preprogrammed numbers such as that of a doctor. Instead, Vodafone is trying to appeal to a large market of middle-aged and older people with a handset they won't find intimidating. The company's European target market is everyone who's 40 years of age or over and isn't issued a cell phone by an employer.

That's a sign of how young the usual market for cell phones is — and what a change this move is for an industry that keeps adding features to get customers to upgrade. Vodafone's plan reflects the need for new sources of growth. Cellular markets in much of Western Europe and Japan are becoming saturated, so that the middle-aged and older are among the few places to look for new growth.

Vodafone is offering the Simply in nine countries so far, not including the United States, a market in which it participates through a 45 percent stake in Verizon Wireless. The U.S. cell phone market still is growing briskly, although its growth, too, is expected to slow before long. The countries where Vodafone Simply is available are the U.K., Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Greece and New Zealand.

Other European cellular operators have ideas similar to Vodafone's for more effectively tapping into the older market, says Kai Oistamo, a senior vice president at Nokia Corp. The Finnish manufacturer of handsets is in discussions with some other service providers now, he says.

Vodafone's initiative began two years ago, after the company surveyed 5,000 Europeans about what they wanted from a cell phone. What it heard from consumers aged 35 to 55 shocked executives of the Newbury, England, company. Many in that age range didn't know their cell phone numbers or how to use basic functions.

One-third, for example, said they didn't know how to tell when they had received a text message. Some thought the envelope icon that signals a message meant their phone bill had arrived.

One woman in Italy told Vodafone she didn't know how to reply to a text message, so she would send back handwritten notes through her son, on his bicycle.

Many 35- to 55-year-olds also didn't like going into Vodafone retail stores because the young staff — average age 24 — talked in acronyms they couldn't understand. These consumers said they weren't interested in the cameras, Internet browsers and many of the other features that are becoming standard on the latest cell phones. "Our biggest customer segment turned round and said: 'You haven't been listening to us,' " says Guy Laurence, the company's consumer-marketing director. "It was an industry for kids."

As the Vodafone Simply project took shape, company executives debated how much emphasis it should get. The company's chief executive, Arun Sarin, a silver-haired 50-year-old who once headed a Silicon Valley start-up, was convinced the appetite for a simpler handset was substantial. "It's not tiny. It's a chunk," he said at a recent news conference.

At an industry gathering in early 2004, Laurence invited manufacturers to build a basic handset that could make voice calls and handle text messages and do little else. "They looked at me like I was from Mars," he recalls. "They said: 'It's not needed.' "

Eventually, Vodafone found a supplier in Sagem SA, a Paris-based electronics maker. Vodafone also engaged IDEO, a London design agency that had worked on the Palm V personal organizer, widely acclaimed for ease of use.

During development, young Vodafone product managers kept trying to add features, like software for sending picture messages. Laurence said no. He showed them an old TV comedy sketch about an elderly person being humiliated by a hi-fi salesman who delighted in the customer's technical ignorance.

Vodafone ran the ideas of product managers past groups of over-40 consumers. One finding was that the consumers tended not to enter many names into their cell phone contacts books because they thought they might lose the handset and have to do it all over again on a replacement. This wasn't good news for Vodafone, which finds that the more names in a phone's contacts book, the more the phone gets used.

To allay people's concerns about the hassle of re-entering numbers in a replacement phone, Vodafone made it easier to copy the contacts book onto a personal computer for storage. The handset automatically transfers contacts to a PC when connected to it, something that with most handsets can't be done unless owners first install special PC software. It is then straightforward to transfer the numbers from the PC back to a replacement cell phone.

Based on what older customers told it, Vodafone installed dedicated buttons for volume control and for locking the keypad, to prevent accidental redialing of the last number called. It added a "tips" function to give users guidance if they got stuck in any of the menus. The handset is bigger than most and has a spacious keypad.

Gary Sheehan, a 38-year-old director of a London information-technology company, likes that keypad, along with the phone's simple menus and large screen. He replaced his Sony Ericsson camera phone with a Vodafone Simply in July. "It was all singing, all dancing," he says of his old phone. "But if I wanted to change the ringer volume, I couldn't find it."

On his new one, "I can see what I am typing without squinting," he says.

The downside is that his colleagues at the IT firm, mostly in their 20s, frequently mock his choice of handset. He says his wife, using British slang for "idiot," calls it the "Vodafone Wally phone." But he doesn't care: "I just wanted a phone that phoned," he says.

The simple handset remains a work in progress. In the 2 1/2 months since Vodafone launched it in mid-May, the company has decided it needed to make about 60 tweaks to the software.

The company's Laurence was wary of permitting advertising agencies, typically staffed by young people, to create a commercial for the phone, fearing it would be too flashy or complicated. The company first commissioned a print ad to run in a European edition of Good Housekeeping magazine — not a usual venue for cell phone advertising. Its print ads, which also ran in Golf Monthly, picture the handset and describe what each button does.

One of them, highlighting the volume-control button, says: "No mucking about in menus to find the right setting. So no excuses for letting your Vodafone Simply phone ring in the middle of your cousin's wedding."

Laurence ran the ad by product managers working on fancy multimedia handsets for young people. "The more they hated it, the more we knew we were on the right track," he says. Vodafone eventually ran television commercials for the phone in four of its markets.

It won't say how many of the phones it has sold, but Laurence says the company expects to at least recoup its investment through added revenue. The average age of the phone's users is 45.

Many young staffers in Vodafone's retail stores don't seem to grasp the concept, because they keep pushing older customers to buy phones with fancy features, Laurence says. So the company has taken to lending their parents a Vodafone Simply. "If their parents say, 'This is the best thing since sliced bread,' " Laurence says, "they are going to learn to sell it properly."