The anti-iPhone

The Jitterbug takes calls and makes calls, and that's it. Now that's thinking different.

Topics: Apple, Smart Phones, iPhone, Wireless,

The anti-iPhone

The young tech writer approaches the Jitterbug phone like he approaches a slice of grandma’s meatloaf: apprehensively, but with a bit of curious hope, too, as the old lady is wise, and who knows what thrills are to be found in exploring her tastes? The apprehension does not quickly wash away, either; the young tech writer is a vain sort, and the Jitterbug, a phone designed to appeal to grandmas, grandpas and tech-fearing boomers, projects a certain dowdiness that the writer fears is adverse to how he prefers to roll. Here is a phone that’s only a phone; it dials, it rings, it collects voice mail, and that’s all. Yet despite the limitations, as he begins to use the thing, the young man feels slowly seduced. A phone that’s only a phone, so old-school it even has a dial tone. Is this what he’s been missing all along?

The Jitterbug is a big, curvy, face cream-colored device that Arlene Harris, a veteran telecom exec, dreamed up in response to what she calls a vital social need. It sometimes seems like everyone has a mobile phone, but there are millions of senior citizens, Harris says, who are too scared either to pick one up or to derive much satisfaction from the phones that their sons and daughters have given them. Many millions of younger people, too, yearn to be free from phones that do a whole lot — the phones do e-mail, they do the Web, they take pictures, they keep a calendar. But they end up doing nothing very well.

It may be possible to find a mobile phone, today, that you really love, but I don’t know anyone who’s encountered such bliss. Most of the cheap ones on the market — and cheap is what most of us want — are more a pain than a pleasure. Jitterbug addresses the problem by going for radical simplicity — a strategy that has proven successful in music players (the iPod), and in video games (the Wii), and could perhaps be just as big in the market for mobile phones.

The Jitterbug’s simplicity begins with thoughtful industrial design. As it sits flipped closed in your hand, the phone feels like a throwback to the cells we were using around 2001; at 4.4 ounces, it’s slightly heavier than alternatives you’ll encounter in stores today, and it’s got fat, inviting edges that are comfortable in a closed palm (the phone reminded me of OXO’s Good Grips kitchen equipment). Flipped open, the Jitterbug looks even bigger still. The numbers on the dial pad are shockingly, comically large — you can make them out from 5 feet away, and when I passed the phone around to other people, nearly everyone chuckled a bit when opening it up.

Most cells on the market today seem to be aiming for sexy; to say that a phone is “sexy,” indeed, is probably the highest compliment you might pay its designer. The Jitterbug is the opposite of sexy. Its roundedness is cute, but it’s a chaste, playful cute — more like the VW Beetle than the BMW Z3, or like Drew Barrymore rather than Angelina Jolie. This is not a look for everyone, of course. When I asked Harris what the phone says about its owner, she used the words “elegance” and “comfort,” which seem right, but not quite complete: I’d add “frumpish,” too, and if you’re the sort of comer whom friends might secretly call “finger guns,” this is not the phone for you.

But this speaks to what’s so unusual about the Jitterbug. Unlike most phones, the Jitterbug is quite clearly concerned with function over aesthetics; it’s for people who want a phone for what it does, not for what it says about you. Flipped open, the phone stretches from your ear to your mouth. Most other phones go only half as far — hold the phone to your ear and its mouthpiece reaches your cheek. Modern microphones are good enough to pick up speech from this distance, but people who’ve spent long lives speaking into land lines find the position unnatural — they often move the small phones back and forth from their ears to their mouths, Harris says. A smaller phone is sleeker, but the bigger handset feels more like a phone should.

For similar reasons, Harris added a feature to the Jitterbug that I’ve never seen on a cellphone — a dial tone. The tone serves as a sign you’re getting a cell signal; instead of counting cell bars, you flip open the phone and put it to your ear to quickly check if you can talk where you are. I found the tone a bit unsettling; I didn’t get its purpose until Harris explained it to me. But I can see how older people might feel differently — on a land line, a dial tone tells you your phone’s not dead, so why shouldn’t it be the same on a cellphone, too?

Talking on the Jitterbug will feel radical for anyone used to more modern mobiles, but that’s only because it’s been so long since we’ve had phones this limited. I can describe the experience of using the Jitterbug in two words: dial, talk. Harris points out that in the late 1990s, most cellphones worked just this way. What’s happened since then is what most people call “progress” — computer chips got smaller and faster, and cellular networks got fatter, capable of carrying much more than voice conversations. But this sort of progress, she says, resulted in a glut of terrible phones. To justify building faster networks, cell operators now cram phones with tons of features most of us don’t need. They want to sell us ringtones, they want us to trade pictures, they want us to download movies and music from our phones — all this activity juices mobile operators’ revenue, but at the same time, it ruins the simplicity and elegance of the phones’ main purpose, talking.

As I write this, another company is on the verge of offering up an innovative product that promises to solve just this problem. Apple wants to revolutionize the mobile experience with a device that does everything — e-mailing, surfing and talking — beautifully. Even if Steve Jobs can pull off that trick, Arlene Harris points out that not everyone wants to do everything. Some people want to do just one thing: They just want to talk. The iPhone starts at $499, with a two-year contract, and what everyone expects will be a high-priced monthly data-plan. The Jitterbug costs $149, with service plans starting as low as $10 a month. Talk, as they say, is cheap.

Correction: An earlier version of this story claimed that Jitterbug service plans start “as low as $20 a month.” In fact, Jitterbug offers an “emergency use” pay-as-you-go plan for $10 a month. Under this plan, you don’t get any free monthly minutes; instead, for $25, you can buy a bundle of 100 minutes which last for a whole year. The cheapest plan that includes minutes is $20 a month; for that price, you’ll get 60 minutes per month of talk time.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>