Japanese Phone Firm Sees Export Market in Older Users

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TOKYO -- The Japanese electronics industry largely missed out on the smartphone revolution. Yet this summer, even as one Japanese company, NEC, exited the business, another one, Fujitsu, announced plans for a new export push.

Rather than competing with dominant brands like Samsung and Apple in the mainstream smartphone market, Fujitsu is aiming at a niche -- older consumers, who, the company says, are not always served adequately by products like Apple's iPhone or the Samsung Galaxy series.

In partnership with Orange, formerly France Télécom, Fujitsu has started selling a smartphone in France that uses a technology called Raku-Raku, or "easy-easy."

The Raku-Raku handset has a touch screen and provides on-the-go Internet access, but it has larger buttons and other features designed for older people who sometimes struggle with the complexity of conventional smartphones.

"We believe the smartphone provides benefits to these customers," said Toru Mizumoto, the director of the mobile product division at Fujitsu.

In partnership with NTT DoCoMo, the leading mobile network operator in Japan, Fujitsu has sold 20 million Raku-Raku phones in Japan since it introduced them in 2001. Ten million of them remain in active use more than a decade later. While most of these phones are old-fashioned feature phones, Fujitsu and DoCoMo introduced the first Raku-Raku smartphone in Japan last year.

Japanese manufacturers tend to focus on the domestic market, introducing features that are considered innovative here but considered quirky and less appealing elsewhere.

While aging consumers may be a niche market, they present a growing opportunity in most industrialized countries. In Japan, 39 percent of the population will be 65 or older in 2050, up from 23 percent in 2010, according to the Statistics Bureau of Japan. In France, the 65-and-older cohort will grow to 25 percent in 2050 from 17 percent in 2010, data from the United Nations show.

"If you're a smaller vendor and maybe haven't had much of a presence in Europe, it makes sense to look at these kinds of niches," said André Malm, an analyst at Berg Insight, a research firm in Goteborg, Sweden. "It's an underserved market."

The 65-and-up population may be growing, but 65-year-olds are becoming younger, too -- at least in terms of their affinity for technology. Those who will retire in 2020 or 2030 are active on Facebook or Twitter now.

"We see that there is a big, big part of the senior population that is willing to go for a smartphone," said Augustin Becquet, the head of Orange's device portfolio.

While the elders of tomorrow may be increasingly comfortable with technology, their physical dexterity may deteriorate with age, as it has with past generations. That is where the Raku-Raku smartphone, called the Fujitsu Stylistic S01, comes in.

At first glance, the S01 looks like a fairly ordinary smartphone. The features are designed for old people, but could just as easily be annoying. The touch-screen "buttons" on the phone's calling function, for example, require a firmer push than those on ordinary smartphones. Only after a slight vibration do they register the chosen digit. That way, the phone avoids misdialing.

Another Fujitsu technology appears to slow down the speech of the person on the receiving end of a Raku-Raku call by removing the gaps between words and allotting more time to the actual sounds. The screen is brighter than those on ordinary smartphones, making it easier to read under direct sunlight.

There are also safety features, like a button on the phone that sends a text message to a friend or family member with the GPS coordinates of the phone's owner in case of emergency. In its shops, Orange is providing special training on how to use the phones.

"The younger generation likes the stuff with the latest technology, but every smartphone vendor is going to have to adapt to an aging population," Mr. Becquet said.

While Fujitsu and DoCoMo were pioneers in the development of phones for older people, they are not the only players in the field. Two European companies, Emporia Telecom in Austria and Doro in Sweden, have also been actively pursuing older users.

Doro introduced its first phone aimed at that market in 2008, and has sold four million of them since then. In the Nordic countries, 15 percent of the 65-and-older population uses Doro phones, said Jérôme Arnaud, the chief executive of the company.

While most of the Doro phones in use are old-fashioned handsets, the company introduced a basic smartphone last December and plans to roll out a more sophisticated model this autumn, Mr. Arnaud said.

The phone will use a simplified version of the Android mobile operating system, and several dozen applications have been customized for it, he added. These include a video e-mail function that lets older people skip the typing.

As for Orange and Fujitsu, the companies say they view the partnership in France as a pilot project; if the Stylistic phone catches on, they say, it will also be offered in other European markets in which Orange operates, like Britain.

"For Japanese vendors, it has been challenging to go abroad," said Michito Kimura, an analyst at the research firm IDC, "but this technology does meet a demand."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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