Coming soon, mobile phones for senior citizens in India



Sugato Chakravarty, who teaches finance at Purdue University in the US, recently gifted a top-end smartphone to his 76-yearold mother living in Kolkata to help stay in touch and share photos. But he ended up losing contact with her for nearly two weeks.

The reason: His mother felt intimidated by the complexity of the touchscreen device, its vast range of apps, plethora of icons, multifunction keys and tiny charging slot among other things. After a few involuntary slips, she just stopped calling, texting or even taking calls on her smartphone. Her younger son Sujoy, who teaches economics at JNU, then sent her a simpler, old-fashioned handset that she’s more comfortable using.

But there is no device available widely in India that the elderly can use with comfort, even though lesser-known brands such as Magicon Impex and iBall have launched phones catering to the segment. That could change.
Sistema Shyam Teleservices and Shenzhen Sang Fei Consumer Communications, which recently reintroduced the Philips brand of mobile phones in India after a gap of seven years, plan to roll out mobile phones customised for older users.

Sistema Shyam is in talks with Chinese and local handset makers to develop a mass market mobile phone for the elderly. “We are currently studying the market and talking to multiple handset makers to launch a special mobile device that senior citizens in India will find affordable and easy to use,” said Leonid Musatov, chief marketing and sales officer at Sistema Shyam.

The Indian arm of Russia’s Sistema JFSC didn’t elaborate on potential vendor partners. An insider said the device would have “a well laid out set of largish buttons with bigger font size numerals printed on the keys to avoid mis-dialling”. It would also have embedded voice prompts to assist older users, one-touch keys for volume control, a torch, FM radio and a safety alert switch. its device at around Rs 5,200.

The handset will have large buttons, a bright screen, and can be turned into a flashlight at the touch of a button. It will also have a dedicated SOS button that dials up to three designated numbers such as a doctor, emergency services or nearby relatives in case of an emergency. There’s an acute scarcity of quality customised mobiles for India’s 100 million-plus senior citizen population, Musatov said.

Samsung, Apple, Nokia and Sony said they don’t make handsets customised just for the elderly in India. Chinese handset maker, ZTE, which is known to have developed such devices for some Latin American markets, declined to reveal India plans. Apple and Samsung said their smartphones have accessibility features designed for users with disabilities such as impaired vision, hearing and reduced dexterity.

Samsung said it had no plans to bring its Jitterbug handset, used by seniors in the US, to India. But devices such as the iPhone could be too costly for the elderly even in the developed markets, said Andre Malm, senior analyst at noted Swedish telecoms research firm Berg Insight AB. Local brands such as Micromax and Karbonn didn’t respond to queries on handsets for seniors.

The absence of a business case has dissuaded mainstream vendors from getting into the segment, said Mahesh Uppal, director at Com First (India), a telecom consultancy. Pankaj Mohindroo, national president of the Indian Cellular Association, the industry body representing handset makers, said, “Dominant international or local handset brands haven’t taken the plunge yet as it would be difficult to justify costs of managing stock keeping units of niche phones that hardly sell a few thousand units a year.”

Another deterrent is India’s relatively youthful population, said Sanjay Kapoor, former CEO of Bharti Airtel’s India and South Asia operations. “Selling customised phones for seniors would throw up cost and marketing challenges in India, where 50% of the population is still under 35 years of age, unlike in Japan, Europe or US where the ageing population is significantly bigger,” Kapoor said.

Handset makers such as Sweden’s Doro AB, Austria’s Emporia, Japan’s Fujitsu and GreatCall in the US already sell phones targeted at older users in those countries.

Delhi-based Magicon’s Senior Duo and iBall’s Senior Aasaan-2 are equipped with a magnifying glass, an uncluttered keypad and large buttons. But the annual sales of such phones, priced at Rs 2,700-3,550, is a fraction of the 250 million-plus mobiles sold annually in India.

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