The First Lady of Wireless Built Mobile Startup to Send Message of Simplicity

3/13/09

When Arlene Harris co-founded GreatCall Inc. in Del Mar, CA, she had a clear idea about the type of mobile phone service she wanted to provide.

“The mobile phone is made to serve us, not to enslave us,” she told me recently. “I don’t want my phone to tell me what to do! We are becoming robots and machine extensions. Everything is marketed as technological, instead of experience. That’s just wrong!”

Harris says she helped launch GreatCall to realize her vision through Jitterbug, a mobile virtual network operator, an independent company that provides mobile phone service but does not have its own licensed operating frequency. GreatCall launched its business in 2006, operating its Jitterbug mobile phone service nationwide and selling Jitterbug cell phones made for GreatCall by Samsung Telecommunications America. Her concept for the entire business is based on the innovation of simplicity—with simple, flat-rate service, and easy to operate phones that cost about $150 each.

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Harris and GreatCall CEO David Inns say Jitterbug is meant to make the cell phone experience available to everybody, and not just seniors. “We see the market divided to those who are interested in technology, and to those who are interested in lifestyle. We don’t see there’s difference between age groups,” Inns tells me.

Jitterbug’s strategy is based on research that shows a majority of mobile phone consumers prefer basic options to what Harris calls “fancier techno-fare.” Another study from IGR says 10 percent of seniors want a mobile phone but don’t have one.

The Jitterbug product line now consists of two easy-to-use cell phones with big keypad buttons and large-size text. It provides users with simplified, understandable options.

This spring, GreatCall plans to introduce a new mobile phone offering, although the company is not sharing details just yet. CEO Inns says they are looking to expand their services and reach for new markets, especially with mobile health services. For example, a Jitterbug cell phone could be used to remind a diabetic patient to take his or her medication. Or the user could tell a Jitterbug network operator about a scheduled doctor’s appointment, and the operator would set a reminder on the user’s own phone.

Jitterbug’s anti-complexity philosophy means that its next-generation phone won’t be more complicated, unlike the escalating technology in devices from other phone makers. “Our product will be better, but not more complex. We will not have icons in our phones. A phone call is a phone call, not a screen icon,” Harris insists.

Harris is regarded as the first lady of wireless. Her career, from her family’s paging business to GreatCall, has lasted 47 years. In 2007, she was first the female innovator to be inducted to Wireless Hall of Fame. She co-founded GreatCall with her husband, Martin Cooper, who is considered the inventor of the mobile phone. He made the first mobile call on a New York City street using a portable cell phone on April 3, 1973. “Young engineers and marketing people have a difficult time finding out what people want. Engineers just want to show off their technologies. They want everyone to see how smart they are. That’s what has gotten us into this mess,” Harris says.

GreatCall evolved from Harris’ SOS Wireless, which provided senior citizens an oversized, three-button mobile telephone for emergency use. After introducing Jitterbug in 2006, GreatCall had the senior citizen market to itself. But a year later, Verizon took a cue and came to market with its own simple-to-use Coupe.

jitterbug-cell-phoneGreatCall is still guided, though, by Harris’ vision of what a cell phone should be, with an emphasis on user-friendliness and on providing personal services to Jitterbug customers.

“Why must you have a camera in your phone when you can’t easily show the pictures it’s taking? That is why we won’t have cameras (in our phones),” says Harris.

Jitterbug’s functions are basically answering yes or no, or dialing with big buttons. No music. No maps. No internet. No strange buttons. Plain colors, yes. It’s like a landline phone, but wireless.

GreatCall has about 150 employees. The company raised $38 million in venture funding last June in a round led by Court Square Ventures. According to Harris, since it was founded, GreatCall has raised a total of over $100 million from investors that include Charles River Ventures, Nauta Partners, Steelpoint Capital Partners, Japan’s Sumitomo Corporation. Harris and Cooper are also investors in the company. In a statement released last year, Court Square managing general partner Jim Murray said, “We saw this as an opportunity to expand our portfolio in a space where underserved demographics, healthcare, and technology are converging.” Using the proceeds of its venture rounds, GreatCall has built up their 24/7 U.S. based call centers, and expanded their brand development and marketing. Harris says the private company is now profitable.

Some of that marketing and brand development can be found on the walls of GreatCall’s offices in Del Mar, about 20 miles north of San Diego. The headlines of the advertising displays for Jitterbug tell it all: “If it were a chair, it would be the most comfortable chair you ever sat in;” “On. Off. Yes. No;” “It’s as complicated as yes or no;” “It doesn’t take pictures, play games or tell you the weather.”

Harris says, “Large-scale integration has blended all sorts of technologies in the phone. We are bringing the phone back to the consumer. It’s about getting simplicity back.”

Harris asks why should we have to care whether a message is sent by e-mail or as a text message. Shouldn’t its content be the only thing that counts? And with U.S. demographics favoring an aging population and a lot of people baffled by new technology, maybe GreatCall has found the right message to send, after all.

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