A Unique Cell Phone Gift

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It isn't often that you see a technology -- or a Christmas gift -- that's appropriate for pre-teens, retired people, and truck drivers.

These groups are all ideal, though, for the Wherifone GPS Locator Phone. This device isn't a full-featured cell phone but makes phone calls only to a restricted set of numbers. More significantly, it contains technology that can quickly determine the user's street address or general location on a map.

The Wherifone is one of 25 newly released products that are in the holiday gift guide that I described last week. I didn't mention the phone in that story because the technology is intriguing enough to merit a column of its own.

Competing for the Specialized Phone Market

Wherifone The Wherifone (photo, left), by Wherify Wireless Inc., is a tiny, 2.5-inch device with three keys that dial predefined numbers. In addition, it offers an "SOS" button and a separate button that accesses a menu of up to 20 other numbers.

This all sounds very similar to some other limited phones for pre-teens, which I discuss below. But there are important differences:

GPS locating. The Wherifone contains a tiny transceiver called a GPS (Global Positioning System) that can locate the user to within a few feet. A parent or business that purchases the phone can use this feature to locate a child, a wandering retiree, or an errant delivery person.

SOS to anyone. Out of the box, the phone's SOS button is preprogrammed to dial 911 (the emergency police number in the U.S. and Canada). But the owner can configure it so the phone contacts other numbers instead. If text-message notification has been selected, holding down the SOS button for three seconds causes the phone to silently send an SMS message to the cell phone of the responsible party. The text of the message includes the closest street address at the time the panic button was pressed. If needed, the called party can visit Wherifone's Web site and see the phone's current location plotted on a map.

These capabilities suggest at least three distinct user types for the Wherifone:

1. Kids. The ability to restrict the phone to only a few numbers, but allow unlimited access to responsible adults, is an obvious application. In a telephone interview, Wherifone spokesman John Cunningham said, "We don't have any child abductions reported yet." But the SOS feature of the phone could be a life-saver if a child was snatched by a bandit or even a noncustodial parent.

2. Retirees who need assistance. For elderly persons who suffer from mild dementia, the ability for their caretakers to locate a patient's phone can prevent hours of frantic searching. "One woman's husband has early Alzheimer's," says Cunningham. "Sometimes he gets confused when he's on walks." The wife simply uses her PC to locate the phone clipped to her husband's belt and picks him up at his present location.

3. Mobile workers. Rescuing kids and the elderly when they get into trouble is the Wherifone's most dramatic use. But the business applications of the device are perhaps even more compelling. Many companies can testify to the headaches of giving employees company-paid cell phones with unlimited service. Wherifones could be economically given, by contrast, to all the truck drivers in a firm, with the devices programmed to call only a dispatching center, a warehouse, and the like.

As a hybrid cell phone with GPS service built in, the Wherifone suffers from the same dead spots and weak coverage that full-featured handhelds also have to contend with. But in an area with strong signals, the device can serve its intended purpose well.

Firefly The Firefly (photo, left), by Firefly Mobile Inc., provides competition to the Wherifone. This device, which has its own menu of programmed numbers -- plus a 911 button and two buttons labeled with Mommy and Daddy symbols-- is targeted straight at parents who need to communicate with their pre-teens.

The Wherifone appears to have wider applicability, simply because of its more neutral design. The Wherifone's buttons can stand for anything. Can you imagine giving a truck driver a cell phone with Mommy and Daddy buttons?

The Wherifone has succeeded in achieving distribution in retail stores such as Brandsmart and Toys 'R' Us, according to Cunningham. In addition, the device is available at such major online sites as Buy.com and Target.com.

The phone lists for $99.95 USD and requires a monthly service contract, like most cellular devices. The basic $19.95/mo. service plan offers the user 60 minutes or 60 GPS position-locates a month, in any combination, Cunningham says. Additional locate commands cost $0.45. But customers can request a rate plan that automatically upgrades them to a larger "bucket" of minutes per month.

At the retail level, about 60 percent of the phones are going to pre-teens, with the rest going to the senior market, Cunningham estimates. The business market hasn't taken off yet, but that may change. The locational aspects of the device are starting to attract larger customers, the company says.

One service agency in Italy, according to Cunningham, is providing Wherifones to partly dependent clients who have no close relatives. A central computer is programmed to sound an alert when a phone isn't moving in a predictable pattern. This suggests that its wearer is ill and needs personal attention.

Information about Wherify Wireless Inc. is available at its corporate Web site. A separate consumer site sells the phones and offers monthly service plans.

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