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KELLNER: Senior users: A highly neglected but possibly fruitful market

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Here's a potentially hot market for computer and software makers, if they can best figure out how to serve it: The 40.2 million Americans older than 65, representing 13 percent of the population, according to a May 2011 brief from the U.S. Census Bureau.

What many of them want, or need, is a very simple, but also very reliable, computer that's easy to connect to the Internet. And by easy, I mean really easy, especially for those who were born in or before the first year America was involved in World War II.

I know a few people in that exact demographic. One had a rather old word processor "die" on them; the other is using a vintage 2005 Apple Macintosh, running the now-abandoned PowerPC chip, and it's rather long in the (Blue) tooth. Each has received, or soon will, newer Macs. With a little patience on their part, all should be well.

While it would be easy to simply advocate a Mac for every senior, that isn't necessarily the answer. Nor, with all due respect, is Microsoft Windows. It's a bit of a paradox: Seniors, perhaps especially those a bit north of 65, could do very well with a computer at home. Simply organized and configured, it could be a great way to keep in touch with distant children and grandchildren, reunite with old friends, and preserve some memories for the future.

Given all that - advantages that have been marketed to us by the industry for years - just plopping a computer in front of granny isn't a simple answer. If the senior in question hasn't had prior computer experience, it could all be too daunting. Hungry Minds' "For Dummies" book series has published several computing "for seniors" books, but not everyone has the patience to read even these good titles.

In 1999, the now-defunct firm Netpliance launched the iOpener, a simple, largely Internet-based device that provided email, Web and some basic word processing. The idea was to provide a device simple enough for a wide range of people to use it. For various reasons, including selling the device at a "loss leader" price while hoping Internet access revenue would generate the profits, the iOpener met an ignominious end.

Other firms have tried to gloss over the innards of computing to present a device easy enough for the non-techie senior to use, including PeoplePC (now solely an Internet service brand of provider EarthLink), which also bought iOpener's customer base. Apple's iPad is very easy to use but isn't the total computing experience a senior might need. Also, the iPad is heavily dependent on the availability of either a Wi-Fi or 3G data connection. Some seniors may not have the former installed and would find the costs of wireless 3G data service a tad burdensome.

So where to go? Telikin, a product of Venture 3 Systems LLC, a firm in Chalfont, Pa., about 25 miles north of Philadelphia, ranges in price from $699 to $999 and is billed as being very easy to use, and targeted at seniors. Initial published reviews have been tepid in at least two instances. The firm offered me a unit to try but hasn't yet answered some key questions, such as whether the video chat feature will work across platforms (i.e., with a Mac), or why, in this memory-hungry era, the device ships with only 2 gigabytes of RAM.

Perhaps the real market need may not be as simple as stated earlier. What I think the market would appreciate is a computer that is not only easy for non-techie seniors to learn and use, but also one that would easily communicate with Macs, Windows-based PCs and tablets. It should not only feature a word processor but something to create presentations with, as well as a spreadsheet (seniors need to manage numbers, too).

Perhaps that brings us back to a "plain" old computer. But that computer should be made easier to use, which I respectfully propose as a slightly late "resolution" for the industry's leaders this year.

Send email to mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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