Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Simple phones

There are few places in the world where selling a laptop with the lines: "No internet. No video. No music" would be anything but commercial suicide.

But at the Buckeye Tool Expo in Dalton, Ohio there is unusual demand for devices that do less. 

The horses and carts tied up outside provide a clue as to why; the exhibition is a draw for the Amish community, whose access to technology is restricted by their faith.

As the American NPR Planet Money show reported last week, a stall at the trade show offered computers that were cutting edge in the 1980s, running the most basic word-processing and and accounting software (the use of such utilitarian technology in business is justifiable for some Amish).

You don't have to wear a bonnet, however, to seek low-technology in a world still gripped by the race to offer enough bells and brushed-aluminium whistles to give even the techiest teenager earache. 

The Amish laptop is at the extreme end of a quiet drive for digital simplicity. Nokia has just unveiled a phone that could be advertised using the same lines used in Ohio. 

The 105 has real buttons, makes calls, sends texts, costs £13 and has, wait for it, a battery life of 35 days.

Nokia is marketing its phone in developing countries, where access to electricity can put a premium on battery life. 

But it's likely to appeal to anyone in need of a back-up phone, their gleaming glass smartphone perhaps having shattered (smartphone designer to colleagues: "people  generally don't drop things, do they?"). 

Less-smart phones are also winning fans wishing to liberate their fingers and minds from hours of distraction from forgotten pursuits, like reading books, and their wallets from £80 phone bills.

The needs of users aren't always the priority of tech giants more often guided by marketing departments. 

Remember when early digital-camera manufacturers were locked in a pixel war, each boasting more millions with every new device? 

More pixels often meant worse pictures, because they overloaded the camera's sensors.

Minorities are typically the first to be left out, but small companies rise to serve them. 

The British-based Raspberry Pi foundation won awards last year for its credit card-sized computer, which costs £22 and is designed to work with TV screens in the developing world, as well as to promote computer education. 

It follows the One Laptop Per Child project, a foundation creating educational, rugged laptops for children in countries denied access to technology.

The growth of the "grey pound" in Europe, meanwhile, has lead to the rise of computers marketed to often-excluded older users. 

Ordissimo is a French firm launched by students who were fed up with fixing their parents' computers. Its laptops, launched in the UK last September, run on a no-nonsense, virus-resistant Linux platform. 

Clutter is banished from screen and keyboard, which features dedicated "copy" and "paste" keys. 

It even offers internet, video and music, as will a tablet due to be launched in Britain next month.
Ordissimo will compete with SimplicITy, laptops with just six functions launched in 2009 by Blue Peter veteran  Valerie Singleton. 

"The majority of people only want a computer to send emails, Skype their family, browse the web and write documents," she said, echoing the needs of almost everyone, regardless of age 

- but not the Amish.

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