TORONTO (CP) - Canada's largest mobile phone company, Rogers Wireless, is tapping into parents' dual concerns over the safety of their kids and the family budget with a specially designed cellphone called the Firefly.
Designed for the pre-teen set, the phone has only five buttons - including speed dials for Mom and Dad - and special features such as a PIN-protected, parent-controlled phone list that limits who can call in to the phone.
Its is made by Firefly Mobile, Inc., a three-year-old company that introduced the Firefly earlier this year in the United States, aiming it at kids aged eight to 12. Its website www.fireflymobile.com
has a cute animated demonstration of its features.
Rogers is the first Canadian carrier to offer the Firefly, one of a growing number of wireless products aimed at kids and/or parents who want to use the technology to stay connected with their children.
"We don't have anything like this. Obviously all other cellphones have the numerical keypad that allows you access to any number you want to dial," Raj Doshi, a Rogers Wireless vice-president, said Monday.
He describes the Firefly as "training wheels on cellular" that gives parents peace of mind while giving children a chance to become accustomed to using the phones responsibly.
"As they grow in terms of responsibility, the parents can give them more freedom" since parents can increase the numbers on the accepted phone list or shut the restriction off, Doshi said.
The Firefly handset also has a number of fun features. It can change colour depending on who is calling, there are different ring tones built into the phone and it can do "a light show, just like a firefly would."
However, the Firefly doesn't have any sort of service for locating the child and it's limited to voice calls only - no text messaging.
Bell Mobility, by contrast, doesn't have a kid-oriented handset like the Firefly but it is launching a family-oriented location service on Tuesday that combines the capabilities of text messaging, the Internet and global-positioning technology.
"It's really Canada's first wireless location service that will give parents the ability to determine their child's whereabouts . . . just by using the cellphone and access to the Internet," said Ken Truffen, Bell Mobility's director of wireless data.
To locate the GPS-equipped cellphone, Bell uses a combination of satellite and ground-based technologies that can be accurate to within a few metres or a couple hundred metres, depending on where the person is located.
Parents can then use the Internet and a standard web browser to locate the cellphone, which will show up on a map once it has been pinpointed. It can also be set up to automatically check the phone's location and provide a log to parents.
It's a simpler version of a business-oriented location service from Bell, called GoTraxx, which provides a lot more detailed reporting.
"With children, all you want to know is where they are at a given time," Truffen said.
For privacy and security reasons, Bell's Seek & Find service automatically sends a text message to the phone indicating that it has been located and by whom and the person searching out the phone must have access to the account.
The location feature can also be disabled either by shutting off the phone or shutting off that particular feature - making it impossible to track the kid's location.
Younger children might not know how to shut off the Seek & Find service but for teenagers there will have to be an element of trust by the parents, Truffen said.
For Seek & Find to work, the handset must be enable to us the GPS feature. Such phones have been available from Bell for more than a year and all future phones will have the feature, Truffen said.
In the case of both the Firefly from Rogers Wireless and the Seek & Find location service from Bell Mobility there are different pricing plans available. The products are available through the usual retail and web channels.
Marina Amoroso, a Boston-based researcher with the Yankee Group, said Monday that the Firefly hasn't really taken off in the United States but she expects other kid-oriented products like it will follow.
"It's great that it's the first to come to market, but there are just so many things that could be improved by a competitor, that it leaves the door wide open for potential improvements," Amoroso said.
For example, she said, the parental controls on the Firefly must be done on the handset - and it would be easier if they could be adjusted through an Internet web browser.
Such a product, called Tic Talk, is being developed in the United States by educational toy maker Leapfrog and Enfora, she said.
Regarding GPS capabilities, many of the U.S. carriers have been wary of marketing a service that promises to find kids, since they could be open to law suits and bad publicity if the service doesn't work.
"The other thing is (the potential for it) to be used for harassment purposes - an angry boyfriend or girlfriend being able to use it to track the other person and find their location," Amoroso said.
A notification "each and every time" somebody uses the tracking feature would prevent that, but there could be problems if the application allows the notification to be shut off, she added.
Anyone using these services? I'm looking into this for the upcoming school year for my kid.