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Kids' cell phones growing up fast
As more kids clamor for mobile phones, wireless carriers have figured out what those young customers don't want: phones that look like toys.
They would rather have something sleek like adults use, or the music-playing model clipped to the waistband of the teenage neighbor's baggy jeans.
"I really want the Chocolate," 12-year-old Ashley Paitich of Highland Park said of the popular music phone sold at Verizon Wireless stores. "I like how the Chocolate comes in different colors, like green or white. And I really like the way it slides up."
Instead, she'll continue to use her Motorola Slvr until she can negotiate a new deal with her mom. But her phone certainly won't look like the models that have been designed for kids, such as the Firefly or the Migo.
Those phones, targeted at children 8 to 12, will no longer be sold in the stores of the nation's two largest wireless carriers. In recent weeks, Cingular and Verizon have pulled the Firefly and Migo from store displays. Instead, the carriers will suggest to parents who want phones for their children to buy models featuring text messaging, GPS locater services and play music.
"Kids are looking for more full features," said Carolyn Schamberger a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless. "We don't have a phone specifically for tweens now. Instead, we offer a line-up of phones that may be of interest, like the Chocolate."
The strategy is an indication of how the phone market for tweens, which is growing at a double-digit rate, is quickly evolving. Just two years ago, when kid-specific products started appearing on store shelves, they were hailed as simple devices that parents needn't worry about because the phones have buttons to make only approved calls and receive those only from programmed numbers, like a parent's phone.
That product still has a niche but it is for 8-year-olds or younger, said Julie Ask, a wireless analyst with Jupiter Research, who is completing a report titled "Selling Cell Phones to Second Graders."
"The biggest challenge with kids under 9 is that "81 percent of their parents say their child is too young to have a phone," Ask said.
But when kids get older, starting about 10 or 11, things change dramatically, she said, with sales growing at "high-double digit rates" annually. "Those kids want a sophisticated phone."
That is putting pressure on Lincolnshire's Firefly Mobile, which makes and sells a five-button phone aimed at tweens.
The phone can still be bought on Cingular's Web site. It had been offered at Cingular stores since November 2005, said Patrick Marry, Firefly's chief executive.
Cingular would not comment on the Firefly decision, but a spokesman said the firm is committed to the youth market through other offerings.
Marry said the Cingular move will not have much impact on Firefly sales because the biggest retail outlet for his product is Target Corp. "That's where moms take their kids to shop, not a wireless store," he said. "And that's where we really focus on our efforts. The vast majority of our distribution in the last year and a half comes from other retailers."
The private company would not disclose sales, but Marry said he expects 2007 to be better than last year. Nonetheless, Firefly will introduce two new phones before the holiday season to address market changes.
"We see the age shifting younger and younger. When we started, we saw the market as 8-to-12-year-olds," Marry said. "Now it's shifting to younger kids, as early as 5 years old."
One new model may look similar to the current product, with a few buttons programmed by parents to make and receive pre-approved calls, but the other phone will have more features to appeal to older kids, ranging from 8 to 13.
Meanwhile, Firefly will have to contend with a new player in the field, Kajeet Inc., which is rolling out its product in Best Buy stores nationwide.
Unlike Firefly, which manufactures its five-button phone, Maryland's Kajeet uses existing models from LG and the Sanyo Katana, a big seller for Sprint Nextel Corp.
"Eleven years ago, I saw a company in Israel launch a four-button kiddie phone," said Daniel Neal, Kajeet's CEO. "I thought it was brilliant, until I showed my kids."
Researching the Kajeet product line, "we really involved kids," he said. "They know more about technology and understand how it works much faster than their parents. They want the real deal."
Neal said the sweet spot for the market is between 11 and 14 years old. He said a third of all 8- to 14-year-olds already have a mobile phone, with 60 percent of that figure representing the older kids.
"In three years that number will double, and all 14-year-olds will have a phone," he said.
Kajeet phones feature text messaging, a Google Maps application, games, ring tones and other content. While the phones have a Web browser, the content found on the Internet comes from a "walled garden" controlled by Kajeet, not the open Internet. That means the kids can't download questionable content, Neal said.
"The market is definitely hot for tweens," Ask said. "But the question is, what are you selling to them? They want something like the older kid next door."