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New cell phone puts grandpa on speed dial


By Peter J. Howe

Boston  Globe, July 23, 2005

A generation ago cell phones were a luxury convenience for corporate chief executives. As prices dropped, they became a staple for middle-class workers, and more recently, a must-have for millions of teenagers.

Are 8-year-olds next?

A suburban Chicago company has just rolled out the first phone designed specifically for children aged 8 to 12. The two-ounce Firefly Mobile phone went on sale at Target stores in New England this week for $100. It has only five buttons, including speed-dial icons representing numbers for Mom and Dad, plus 911 for emergencies. Parents can program the phone to make and take calls only from numbers they enter into the phone directory.

The world's first phone built for preteens is is being launched as more and more of their teenage siblings -- and a fast-growing minority of ''tweens" -- are joining the wireless revolution, and at ever-younger ages.

Already, roughly 10 percent of American children under the age of 13 have a cellphone. That's up from 7 percent last year, according to the most recent survey by the Yankee Group, a Boston technology consulting firm. Among teens 13 to 17, cellphone ownership has jumped to 54 percent from 47 percent last year, according to Yankee senior analyst Linda Barrabee.

Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile are already making deep inroads with teen consumers. Walt Disney Co. has announced plans to offer a child-focused cellphone brand this year. Verizon Wireless's new television-over-cellphone service even includes the classic children's program ''Sesame Street."

Delly Tamer, chief executive of LetsTalk.com, a San Francisco online wireless shopping site, predicted that Firefly will prove a popular alternative for parents who want to enable their child to make short calls such as asking for a ride home from practice or a play date, but not run up $200 bills chatting with friends, sending text messages, and downloading ring tones. ''Firefly's design is nice, but it is especially the features that are attractive," Tamer said. ''Parents can feel like they have more control over their tween children's calling patterns."

While Firefly's advantages for parents paying the cellphone bill are clear, interviews with children squarely in Firefly's target demographic suggest many children will find it appealing, too, as long as their families can afford the $100 up front and 25-cents-per-minute prepurchased airtime.

''It's nice and easy to carry around," said Maggie Yandle, 11, one of a half-dozen children at the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club who agreed to be an informal focus group for a Globe reporter and photographer earlier this week. As she watched patterns of lights and an animated firefly flash around the 2-by-3-inch device, Yandle said: ''That's pretty cool."

Tino Cauchon, 9, of Malden, who sometimes uses his mother's cellphone, said the Firefly design ''is not so complicated. I don't have to remember phone numbers. It wouldn't take so long to dial."

Asked whether he would mind only being able to make calls to numbers his family approved, Jared Zero, 11, of Medford, said, ''It would be fine for me. I'd probably only need to call one or two people. Mom and Dad, maybe Grandpa."

But the Firefly is hardly getting universal raves. Susan Linn, a psychologist with the Harvard Medical School-affiliated Judge Baker Children's Center and author of ''Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood," called the Firefly another instance of corporations preying on ever-younger children.

''It's a way of getting kids hooked on cellphones, basically, while the message to parents is all about fear and guilt: You should keep track of your child, and you're not a good parent if you don't get this," Linn said. ''Once this market is saturated, they're going to find a way to go even younger."

Linn also questioned how long 8- to 12-year-olds would be satisfied with the simple device -- a point illustrated by Charlestown camper Yarinelle Gomez, 10, of West Roxbury, who within two minutes of first seeing and playing with the Firefly asked: ''Does it have any games?" The answer: It doesn't. Firefly will make only phone calls.

A few research studies in Europe have raised fears that cellphone use may pose a particular brain cancer risk for children, although US regulators have staunchly defended current regulations on phone radiation levels as safe. Firefly's chief executive, Robin Abrams, said the Firefly phones ''comply with all regulations." While brain-cancer fears are ''really kind of an old chestnut," Abrams said, ''we'd be the first to agree that there needs to be more study done."

In designing the phone, Firefly conducted more than 300 focus groups and surveys. ''An adult cellphone, to a lot of parents, represented too much technology too soon" for children 12 and under, Abrams said. Many loved the idea of a super-simple device, she added, telling the company: ''Stay away from text messaging. Stay away from games. Stay away from cameras."

Strong control over whom kids can talk to comes at the price of some inconvenience, however. The three-button system for entering names and numbers by scrolling and selecting one letter or number at a time means, for example, spelling ''Aunt Lisa" and entering a 10-digit phone number requires pressing keys more than 170 times.

Firefly has found that the simplified device has drawn interest from people well outside the target market, including an 81-year-old grandmother in Minnesota and fashion-minded 20-something Manhattan women who like a weekend phone tiny enough to fit in a clutch purse. Families of adults with physical or developmental disabilities have also signed up.

''The design lends itself to a lot of other applications," Abrams said, ''but we are really, really focused on serving kids and providing their parents peace of mind."


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