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Geriatric smartphones

November 15, 2011 - Harry Eagar
Tricia got me an iPhone 4S for my 65th birthday, and I'm having fun with it. Some of the apps are hilariously stupid, which I'll get to in a moment.

But it's too small.

The difficulty is that us ol' futs cannot see too well. We are all deficient in contrast, and often in acuity as well. (I wrote a story about this in The Maui News years ago, about how hotels need to light their public spaces more brightly so that older customers can get around.)

To take a non-digital example, I am reading a book for review that is printed in khaki type on white paper. I am sure some young person designed this book (although it was written by a woman old enough to be my mother), and it seemed arty and beautiful. But I can barely make out the text in bright light. Gutenburg was right to use black ink.

My old phone, a so-called feature phone, had a slightly smaller screen than the iPhone, and it was nowhere near as bright. It had browsing capabilities, but they were impossible for me to use. The iPhone is much better, and I can read text without much trouble. But Tricia got herself an iPhone, too, and she is having more trouble reading text on it.

(I downloaded an app with 173 translations of the Bible, including a terrible version in what is alleged to be Hawaiian pidgen, surely an example of overkill.)

I cannot imagine why anyone – even a young person -- would watch movies on an iPhone. It's like going back to those ancient TVs with the screen the size of a saucer.

The manufacturers are missing a bet by not offering a bigger smartphone for old people.

How much bigger?

In my case, I thought long and hard about the iPad. I have arthritis and taking notes with a pencil is becoming more and more difficult. A tablet with a microphone and voice-to-text software might be the solution. If the iPad also had a phone, I'd have jumped for it. (In a way, the iPad is just an overgrown iTouch, which is an iPhone without the phone.)

I imagine a cell phone as big as an iPad is too big for most people, but I routinely carry around a paper notebook about the same size, so it wouldn't make any difference to me. There is at least one add-on that claims to turn the iPad into a phone, called Line2, but it's VoIP, and my experience with that has been lousy too much of the time.

Today, Amazon began delivering its KindleFire tablets, which are smaller than iPads, and apparently meant for people to lug them around routinely. A Fire-sized cell phone (7-inch screen) would suit some of us old guys, but something in between would also be attractive, I believe. A cell phone an inch and a half longer than the iPhone, and proportionately wider, would still fit in a man's shirt pocket. Most women seem to carry their phones in purses, so small size is rather less of an issue.

If I were trying to sell smartphones, I'd offer the same models in three sizes.

The larger sizes could have more battery, and larger keypads would help as well, because as we get older, our fingers become more tremulous, as well as stiffer.

Now, about those apps. When cable television was beginning to explode, it was predicted that someday there would be a consumers' paradise with 500 channels. I wondered at the time how bad the 500th-worst cable channel would be.

In practice, it turned out to be much, much worse than my most lugubrious speculations. IPhone apps have taken a similar path.

It is said there are 500,000 apps available, although it would be more accurate to say there are 10,000 versions each of about 50 apps. I have not looked at even 500 apps, but some of the ones I have seen are awfully stupid.

Worst, so far, is Kamasutra, which offers a menu of sex positions. I cannot quite imagine someone interrupting the moment to say, “Wait a moment, my dear. I must consult my iPhone for ideas about where to go from here.”

When I mentioned this in the newsroom, one of the other reporters said there are some things a person should bone up on ahead of time.

So true.


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