Jitterbug J's Simplicity Could Be Limiting

SAN DIEGO ( TheStreet) -- One third of business owners are older than 55, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, but you would never know that by looking at today's small-business tech tools.

Apple ( AAPL), Dell ( DELL), Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) and Microsoft ( MSFT) revel in making their products more hip, leaving oldsters feeling, well, old.

San Diego-based Jitterbug is trying to meet the needs of the "un-young." In 2006, the company rolled out phone service aimed at older users. Jitterbug's bare-bones phone offered easy-to-hear voice technology and oodles of customer service.

Earlier this year, the company introduced the Jitterbug J, adding features like text messaging, voice dialing and Bluetooth connectivity. On paper, these upgrades make the phone suitable for small businesses. But to find out for sure, I tested out this $147 phone and no-contract service for a few weeks.

What you get: Not surprisingly, this phone is really easy to use. Even the deepest technophobe will understand how it works. And on those terms, there is much to like.

The phone, made by Samsung Electronics, is comfortable to hold and features a rugged ear cushion that limits outside noise. It has the throwback "innovation" of providing a dial tone, like a desk phone, when service is available, which takes some getting used to on a cell phone. The buttons are big, simple and organized well.

I liked the screen, in particular. It displays stripped-down menu options, including a basic directory, voice mail, call logs, text messaging and phone controls.

Voice quality was crisp in New York, Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. The Jitterbug J really shines in service. Simply press 0, like you would in a hotel, and a live, patient human will help you dial, enter contacts and place messages. You'll find none of the automated operators or voice recognition tools that are common at the bigger carriers.

What you don't get: Don't expect anything close to a modern cell phone.

Jitterbug's simplicity can quickly become a liability for business users. For one thing, the phone has no e-mail or document features, so you would still need a laptop or smart phone to access these files. And those gadgets are as complex as they always were. So where's the gain?

And it's not like the Jitterbug J is cheap. The phone is pricey: $147 buys a whole lot of smart phone these days and talk time is sold in 100-minute increments, which start at $30 for 200 minutes. Additional lines run $15 each and have similar per-minute charges. Voice mail runs $3 a month. Text messages are 10 cents each. Each call to an operator costs you five minutes of your plan time.

Add that up and this phone becomes stratospherically expensive.

Bottom line: Whether you can rely on the Jitterbug J for business is a tough call.

For the sole proprietor, there's value in having easy access to customer support. And the service's durable simplicity is appealing in this cluttered age.

But at the end of the day, I missed my mobile applications. And I used them just as heavily on my laptop.

This device lives in a simpler world of its own. It's a nice place. I'm just not sure the larger world will go there.

-- Reported by Jonathan Blum in Westchester, N.Y. Feedback can be sent to blum@blumsday.com.
Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.