GreatCall Jitterbug Dial Phone and Service

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Smartphones here, smartphones there—how about a dumb phone? This week I tested the Jitterbug, a phone designed for the parents of baby boomers, a nice way of saying the only people who may not yet have cell phones. It’s the opposite of a so-called smartphone—far from push e-mail servers and multimedia text messages, this phone comes pre-loaded all the contacts you’ll ever need, and voicemail is optional. I said “dumb” but in truth, this simple phone may be one of the smartest designs on the market.

This Jitterbug has excellent pedigree: built by mighty Samsung, it was co-designed by Martin Cooper, the man who made the first cell-phone call in 1973, and his wife, Arlene Harris, herself a telecom pioneer. During the late 1990s, the couple created the SOS Phone for people who just wanted something around in case of emergencies. The SOS Phone evolved into the Jitterbug, the star of Cooper and Harris’ new mobile operator, GreatCall.

The strategy is simple: give elderly people a phone that they can use, with larger buttons, fewer screen options and a padded, amplified earpiece that doesn’t interfere with hearing aids. Even the manual comes in large print, with excessive explanation (“Battery—Delivers power to make your phone function”). I looked at the Jitterbug Dial, so called because it has a numeric keypad. The other phone (also $147) is the Jitterbug OneTouch, which keeps the options simple with just three main dialing buttons. While ordering, you type in online or dictate to a salesperson the 10 preset names and numbers you’d like to have on the phone.

When you open the phone, you hear the quaintly familiar dial tone, purely for effect. The screen says “Voice Dial?” Tap the “Yes” button, say the name of a person in your phone book, and the call goes through. It’s painless, and reliable thanks to voice recognition from the brainiacs at VoiceSignal. If you don’t want to voice dial, you can press the “No” button, which leads you to the next option, a list of phone numbers. Press “No” again, and you get a call history, followed by a prompt to listen to voicemail. A final “No” takes you to a screen of quick stats: battery life, signal strength and approximate used minutes.

Voicemail is organized in a similarly linear fashion. Your first option is to hear new messages. Pass that and you’re on to your saved messages. After that, you can edit your answering options (name only or a full greeting). Best of all, you can navigate voicemail by simply answering “yes” or “no” to everything—you don’t have to push a single button.

GreatCall’s final ace is its operator assistance. If a frustrated user calls, the operator will see his or her personal phone list in order to help. Operators will dial other numbers, too, or look people up like other types of directory assistance. Operator assistance is never free: this one takes five minutes out of your allowance, even if the call was super quick.

Plans range from $10 per month for “simple SOS”—no regular minutes, just emergency service—up to 300 minutes per month for $40. Voicemail will cost an extra $3; the usual taxes and other surcharges also appear on the bill. GreatCall offers annual versions of all of their plans, but the math didn’t add up for me. The 300-minute plan costs $569 if you pay for the year up front. Even with voicemail included, that’s over $50 more expensive than paying monthly. The annual plan includes a 20% discount on the phones, but I hardly think that’s worth it.

More importantly, even though the phone physically uses the Sprint network, GreatCall is the operator. If you buy your mother this phone, you won’t get free in-network calling from your carrier, not just Verizon, T-Mobile and Cingular, but even Sprint. The clear message here is that these phones aren’t for gabbers—they’re for people who are worried that their parents don’t have any means to communicate, in case of emergency or just in case. I just don’t know how many people would entrust their elderly parents’ safety to a cell-phone carrier that isn’t their own. My desire is to see this phone somehow become a major-carrier offering, and not just the hardware. Let’s see the big boys sell the whole package, including full-service set-up, simplified voicemail, and barebones billing options.