Dear Industry: Time To Rethink Attitudes About Age

by Steve Wildstrom   |   August 15th, 2012

Last month, I officially crossed the line into geezerhood.

Entering the land of Medicare as part of the baby boom vanguard has served the heighten my irritation at the tech world’s frequently patronizing, even pitying attitude toward what it regards as the clueless old. Marketers ignore this fast growing demographic at their peril, but those who think of us geezers only as customers for medical devices and dumbed-down computers are making an even bigger mistake.

My hackles (I think you develop those with advancing age) were raised today by a Kickstarter project called Pure Device, brought to my attention by Ross Rubin. Pure Device is a cloud-based touchscreen tablet in a frame with what appears to be a much simplified user interface. Its marketing pitch: “In the U.S. alone, there are 34 million people over the age of 65, a large percentage of whom struggle with effectively using the current available technologies. As a result, it is hard for them to stay connected with their families due to this sharp divide in accessible and user-friendly technology.”

Pure Device prototype (Kickstarter)Let’s look at the intersection of today’s 65-year-old and technology. Many of us were introduced to computers in college in the 1960s; my first computer was an IBM 7090 mainframe. Many of us learned about electronics building things from Heathkit or with bits from Radio Shack. By the mid-1980s, when we were in our late 30s, PCs were invading the workplace in significant numbers. By the mid-90s, home computers were becoming ubiquitous and many of us had our first cell phones, often in the form of a car phone. By the late 90s, we were all on the internet (or at least AOL.)

In other words, most people in their 60s have been familiar with personal technology most of our working lives. We have laptops and desktops, iPhones, Androids, BlackBerries, and iPads–and we know how to use them. There are lots of 60-somethings in the crowds that pack my local Apple Store.

The reality is that as we get older, vision and hearing tend to deteriorate and arthritis and other conditions can limit dexterity. These mostly are not serious issues for those of use in our 60s, but they become more so in the 70s and beyond. But what they call for is the use of good adaptive technology to facilitiate use, not a dumbing down that assumes we are ignorant and incapable of learning. (Sadly, dementia and other cognitive impairments do become a growing problem with advancing age, but it’s not clear to me that any of the non-medical products being marketed to today’s 65+ population address this in any serious way.)

Not everyone is missing the boat. Longtime tech journalist Gary Kaye has stared a web site called In the Boombox, aimed at tech-savvy and active baby boomers. (The current home page features two GPS devices for back-country hikers.) But despite the interest and high disposable income of the baby boomer generation, efforts such as this are rare.

The tech world is a kingdom of the young, a place where 43-year-old Sheryl Sandberg is regarded as a (metaphorical) graybeard and 56-year-old Bill Gates a fossil. It’s not surprising that the young whippersnappers who run the industry view people their parents’ age as ancient, irrelevant, and probably helpless. But they are making a big mistake.

P.S.–Pure Device, your pictures make it look as though that tablety thing is designed primarily as a stationary device held vertical in its frame. The ergonomics of touch are awful on vertical surfaces and vertical touch keyboards are nearly impossible to use. We boomers are comfortable with keyboards; we’ve used them all our lives. Think about adding one.

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • http://www.BarnesFamily.com/ davebarnes

    As a youngster at age 64, I can only agree. My first computer was an IBM 1620 that I got to program in 1965.
    You know how to make devices easier to use for us old farts? Make them easier for everyone. The iPhone is the perfect example. Remember trying to enter names/numbers into cell phones back in 2004? Oh, you don’t remember? Of course you don’t. It was so awful for everyone that you have forgotten.

  • Corrado

    Well written but:Why do you give them exposure?

  • pawhite524

    I agree with you, Steve, and I’m only 61 and a 1/2! I have no past experience in tech-related realms having spent my career in health care including, for a long 3 years, the marketing of health care education materials. IMHO, Pure Device is using a marketing firm who relies on the myths of age-ism circa 1950′s or early 1960′s when life expectancy for males was age 67 or “there abouts.” IMHO, your post script observation about the ergonomics is right-on and can’t be rationalized as a marketing department flub!

    Since this is a Dear Industry column the sins of the marketing component need to be attached to the Tech Company and Pure Device is owed this sorting out.

    On a house-keeping note, I believe you were really “steamed up” when writing this article as i have never seen so many typos (I counted three) in your work before. Please forgive my being a nit-picker in this regard, I have no wish to offend. I’m generally a very good speller but the correct use of grammar is failing me by the month. My own writing is anything but beyond reproach in this regard.

  • EugeneL

    Steve – thank you very much for the feedback! As a founder of Pure Devices, I am always looking for people who can criticize what we do rather than compliment us, since this helps us to make things better. It is very important for us to see that people can see our approach as offensive one. We definitely will work on adjusting our messaging and overall offering in order to avoid such things. The facts is that this company was created based on many years of our team’s experience working with people who really struggle with today’s technology. Those are definitely not just elderly people – we see the application of what we are trying to do in many different age groups. We are trying to bring a familiar experience to those people who find our approach useful. I personally use this device on my kitchen table, while at this moment I’m typing my reply on my iPad. The whole approach is that everything runs in the cloud and Pure Device is simply a window to that cloud. This allows us to do support on much better level. Will it work for everyone? Of course not. But you know – if I will be able to bring more fun to just some people – I’m going to be pretty happy.

    Honestly – thanks again for the feedback – will try to be more careful with messaging.

    P.S. it does have a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse.

    • pawhite524

      I am impressed with your speedy and thorough reply. Capitalism with a Conscience is OK by me…

    • steve_wildstrom

      Thank you for the comment. I think there is a market for a device of this sort, though it has proven elusive. The risk is in assuming that anyone over 65 is a likely candidate.