Firefly phone targets tweens, their parents


by Mike Dano

Mar 11, 2005

As penetration rates soar in the United States and elsewhere, wireless players are looking for new areas of the market to push their wares. In some cases that involves super-cheap phones and prepaid service. In other areas, it means specialized branding like phones and service from ESPN. And for a handful of companies, it involves selling phones to children.

Founded three years ago, startup Firefly Mobile Inc. launched its Firefly phone for 8- to 12-year-olds. Rather than modifying an aging handset model from Nokia Corp. or Motorola Inc. for their purposes, Firefly's executives designed the device from the ground up to appeal to both kids and parents. The goal is to give parents a way to check up on their kids-"I'll pick you up from soccer practice in 15 minutes"-as well as to give kids a useful and desirable new toy-"look what I got!"
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"Why aren't parents buying cell phones (for their children)? They're such practical tools," said Fred Bullock, Firefly's chief marketing officer. Bullock, along with other Firefly execs, hails from Apple Computer Corp., a company often lauded for its designs. "It's a huge untapped market."

Firefly's phone replaces the standard 10-key phone layout with five buttons that can directly dial a child's mom or dad (the mom button features a homely stick figure with a dress) as well as an optional 20 additional pre-selected numbers. The tiny phone also features a dedicated button for 911 emergency calls. Parents will be able to control the use of the phone; for instance, they can ensure the phone will receive calls from only a select set of numbers. The phone is about twice the size of a cigarette lighter, weights 2 ounces and is built by Solectron Corp.

For kids, the phone features a set of blinking lights and glowing keys "just like a real firefly," Bullock said. Kids can also choose from among 20 Disney-esque ringtones and can switch out the colored plastic covers. Firefly is even selling a mesh pouch for boys and a "wristlet" purse for girls.

"It was also very important to make a phone that kids would like and want," Bullock said.

Interestingly, Firefly evades the wireless industry's constant high-tech cravings with a phone that does nothing beyond placing and receiving calls. Parents won't have to worry about their children sending 100 text messages a day, downloading the latest 50 Cent ringtone or visiting one of a growing number of WAP porn sites.

"It's also designed to appeal to parents," Bullock said. "We're actually launching a new category of phone."

Firefly said market statistics point to a major opportunity. The company said there are 20 million 8- to 12-year-olds in the United States, and only 10 percent have mobile phones. Similar research from the World Wireless Forum shows that there were 190,000 children under the age of 10 in the United States who owned mobile phones at the end of last year, and that number is expected to double this year. For children aged 10 to 14, 5.5 million owned mobile phones last year and that number should increase by 2 million this year. The World Wireless Forum's new report also shows that children under 10 spend 12 percent of their pocket money on mobile-related products and services. Similar research from the NPD Group backs up that figure-the firm found that youth between 13 and 17 years old spent 10 percent less money in the past year on clothing, making up for that with an increase in spending on mobile phones.

Firefly is selling its device with prepaid service through Triton PCS/Suncom and soon plans to sell it through Cincinnati Bell's wireless arm. Triton is offering the phone for $200 with 1,200 prepaid minutes. Firefly also will sell the phone through its own Web site starting in May for $100 with 30 prepaid minutes, as well as through Target stores starting this summer under an exclusive arrangement with the retailer. The company will sell wireless service under a mobile virtual network operator arrangement with Cingular Wireless L.L.C., although Bullock said Firefly doesn't consider itself an MVNO.

Firefly plans to run its own advertising campaign to promote the phone, although Bullock declined to say how much money the company would spend on the effort.

Bullock said Firefly is working to expand the number of carriers selling the device. The company also is planning to upgrade its Firefly technology. The current version of the phone works on GSM 850 MHz, while a future version will work on GSM 900 MHz and CDMA networks. Firefly counts around 20 employees and is privately funded. Bullock declined to give funding specifics.

Firefly is not alone in marketing wireless services to children. Toy maker Hasbro said in February it is working on a phone using two-way radio technology for children ages 11 to 14. Wherify Wireless Inc. sells its Wherifone G550 device to parents and children, a gadget that supports voice calls and global positioning system location functions. Finally, SAMSys Technologies Inc. is teaming with SafeTzone Technologies to develop a family locator system working through radio frequency identification technology. The system will be installed in venues including Steamboat Ski and Resort in Colorado and Dollywood's Splash Country in Tennessee.

Janet Newton, President
The EMR Policy Institute, P.O. Box 117, Marshfield VT 05658
Tel: (802) 426-3035 FAX: (802) 426-3030
Web Site: http://www.emrpolicy.org


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