As more kids clamor for mobile phones, wireless carriers have figured outwhat those young customers don't want: phones that look like toys.
They would rather have something sleek like adults use, or themusic-playing model clipped to the waistband of the teenage neighbor's baggyjeans.
"I really want the Chocolate," 12-year-old Ashley Paitich of Highland Parksaid of the popular music phone sold at Verizon Wireless stores. "I like howthe Chocolate comes in different colors, like green or white. And I reallylike the way it slides up."
Instead, she'll continue to use her Motorola Slvr until she can negotiate anew deal with her mom. But her phone certainly won't look like the models thathave 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 thestores 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 theirchildren to buy models featuring text messaging, GPS locater services and playmusic.
"Kids are looking for more full features," said Carolyn Schamberger aspokeswoman for Verizon Wireless. "We don't have a phone specifically fortweens 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 isgrowing at a double-digit rate, is quickly evolving. Just two years ago, whenkid-specific products started appearing on store shelves, they were hailed assimple devices that parents needn't worry about because the phones havebuttons to make only approved calls and receive those only from programmednumbers, like a parent's phone.
That product still has a niche but it is for 8-year-olds or younger, saidJulie Ask, a wireless analyst with Jupiter Research, who is completing areport titled "Selling Cell Phones to Second Graders."
"The biggest challenge with kids under 9 is that "81 percent of theirparents say their child is too young to have a phone," Ask said.
But when kids get older, starting about 10 or 11, things changedramatically, 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 andsells a five-button phone aimed at tweens.
The phone can still be bought on Cingular's Web site. It had been offeredat Cingular stores since November 2005, said Patrick Marry, Firefly's chiefexecutive.
Cingular would not comment on the Firefly decision, but a spokesman saidthe firm is committed to the youth market through other offerings.
Marry said the Cingular move will not have much impact on Firefly salesbecause the biggest retail outlet for his product is Target Corp. "That'swhere moms take their kids to shop, not a wireless store," he said. "Andthat's where we really focus on our efforts. The vast majority of ourdistribution in the last year and a half comes from other retailers."
The private company would not disclose sales, but Marry said he expects2007 to be better than last year. Nonetheless, Firefly will introduce two newphones before the holiday season to address market changes.
"We see the age shifting younger and younger. When we started, we saw themarket 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 buttonsprogrammed by parents to make and receive pre-approved calls, but the otherphone 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 Kajeetuses 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 kiddiephone," said Daniel Neal, Kajeet's CEO. "I thought it was brilliant, until Ishowed 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 thantheir parents. They want the real deal."
Neal said the sweet spot for the market is between 11 and 14 years old. Hesaid a third of all 8- to 14-year-olds already have a mobile phone, with 60percent of that figure representing the older kids.
"In three years that number will double, and all 14-year-olds will have aphone," 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 contentfound on the Internet comes from a "walled garden" controlled by Kajeet, notthe 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 nextdoor."