Elementary uses for cell phones



See Dick.

See Jane.

See Dick and Jane on their cell phones.

The elementary school set is the latest target of cell-phone companies. So far, two models are on the market: Firefly from Firefly Mobile Inc. and TicTalk from Enfora.

They look like toys but are real cell phones with adult price tags. Each costs $99, and the call rate -- for incoming and outgoing calls -- is 25 cents a minute.

A kid could rack up a huge bill at that rate. To ward off bankruptcy, parents retain a large measure of control over the phones. Neither the Firefly nor TicTalk has a number pad. They are designed to let parents program into them the only phone numbers that can be called.

The child can't get to the program mode without a password or personal identification number. To make a call, Dick or Jane uses buttons on the phone to choose one of the pre-selected numbers.

Firefly spokesman Danny Kraus characterized the cell phone as not geared toward chitchat about Yu-Gi-Oh.

"It's a tool to keep families connected," Kraus said.

Firefly and TicTalk are meant to reassure parents who want to make sure their kids can call them if they miss their rides or are caught in some other unexpected circumstance.

And parents want to know that they can always -- or at least nearly always -- keep an electronic leash on their kids.

But it's questionable whether a cell phone is practical for children that young.

Firefly and TicTalk are small enough to fit into children's hands and thus are easy to lose. Also, these phones are not waterproof. Unless kids have gotten a lot more responsible since I was in grade school, I would guess that the chance of loss or damage is considerable.

But neither of the cell-phone manufacturers offers reduced-price replacement plans or insurance.

If you decide to get one of the phones, your child probably would favor the look of the Firefly, even though the TicTalk offers more features and flexibility.

The Firefly, with its capsule shape and blue translucent case, would be a cool addition to the outside of a book bag (it comes with a clip for attachment).

When a call is made or received, a series of internal lights go off in sequence on the phone, suggesting a firefly in flight.

The Firefly also has two oversize buttons -- one marked with a stick figure of a man and the other of a woman, like the ones on bathroom doors. These are for one-touch calls to Dad or Mom.

Another button, marked with a phone-book icon, puts a list of other permitted calls on Firefly's minuscule screen that is beyond the focus point of middle-age eyes.

Even if you can see the tiny type on the screen, programming the phone would be a nightmare.

Firefly's manual, which gives confusing, out-of-sequence instructions, takes you through an arduous set of tasks that uses the phone's buttons to pick out numbers and letters for each entry, one number or letter at a time. It's slow going.

The TicTalk is not as snazzy-looking, but it's a better choice for the money. The TicTalk is the closest gadget to parenting by phone.

Phone numbers are entered at the TicTalk Web site, using the convenience of a full keyboard.

Numbers can be placed in two categories. The Anytime category, for parents' numbers and other important numbers, are for selections that can be called any time of day. The Reward category is for other numbers that can be called only at set times.

The TicTalk includes several educational games produced in conjunction with LeapFrog Enterprises Inc., which makes a popular line of learning products for children.

The phone also has PDA functions. You can set a reminder for a child by typing an event on the Web site (piano lesson) and setting a time for the phone to let the kid know.

This is probably a good thing, but do we really want our kids to be appointment-driven? There's plenty of time for that later.

Soon there could be Baby BlackBerrys and Willy Wonka Wi-Fi setups. But in the meantime, does this entree into the grade-school crowd mark the end of new markets for cell phones in this country?

Maybe not. There is still one more character in our story.

See Spot.

David Colker writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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