Jitterbug: Back to Basics

July 23, 2007

With the release of the iPhone, every mobile device company on the planet is in a frenzy looking to either develop something comparable or prove that they already have a comparable product in the market.  Well, except one. The Jitterbug, marketed by Great Call, is the simplest, plainest cell phone on the market. It is not a camera or a music player.  No texting or emailing or websurfing. It is just a phone.  And the fact that it is not available from any of the major wireless carriers is a huge missed opportunity for all of them.

Text messaging, ringtones, and web surfing are cash machines for wireless providers. Multi-function devices compete aggressively for this seemingly endless promise of dollars.  And sleek, cutting edge phones can be the stars of a consumer electronics portfolio.  But what about the vast throng of customers that really just want a plain and simple phone? The majors have abandoned this customer.  And the only reason I can think of is because they know that a simple phone-only phone is a great idea that would siphon millions of subscribers away from other add-on-generating devices.

Great Call has positioned its phone for an older audience, ìfor Boomers and Beyond.î Big buttons, big display and a range of user-friendly attributes are a natural for a market that less likely to communicate in text-speak or exchange photos by phone. But without any research beyond my own kitchen table to support this, I would expect that millions of people across market segments would love a cell phone built to perform only its eponymous function ñ and that is precisely what the majors are afraid of.  

Jitterbug Website 

The opportunity for the first mover here can be substantial. Yes, AT&T or Verizon may lose some add-on spending from a few million customers if they offered a Jitterbug-esque phone.  But, they would likely add millions more customers that are less likely to churn with the newest technology and less likely to command the bandwidth of streaming video and the like.  

Right now, the Jitterbug costs about $150 and comes with some pretty minimal calling plans. Cheaper devices and competitive calling plans would result if a major wireless provider stepped up to the plate in what could really be a game-changing move. The short-sighted majors are running from potentially of millions of subscribers paying $30-$60 per month for phone-only access and little chance of being seduced away by the latest new gadget. It would probably take a second-tier player like T-Mobile or Sprint to make a no-frills phone mainstream.

T-Mobileís new HotSpot@Home is the perfect example of a paradigm-shifting development that can only come from a non-leader in the industry. HotSpot@Home lets users move seamlessly from their mobile network to any local wi-fi network with the cell calls, enabling free VoIP calling when your phone can connect to a local wireless network.  A very cool idea ñ which, if it catches on, could truly change the way we use our phones.   

The extraordinary hype around the iPhone and the rush of carriers and manufacturers to react suggests that a Jitterbug-style phone will probably not get a major national stage anytime soon.  Yet the answer to the iPhone may not, in fact, be a sleeker, sexier gadget with even greater functionality.  Perhaps it will be a device that returns to its roots and appeals to millions by offering simplicity and superior performance with only the most basic functionality; in other words, a cell phone.

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