IBM has started a two-year research program that aims to make cellphones easier to use for groups including the elderly and the illiterate.
As growth in developed markets such as Europe, Japan and United States has stalled, the wireless industry is looking especially toward the elderly who have so far thought they could do without a cellphone, or who can't use the one they have.
IBM said on Wednesday software developed in the program, which also involves the National Institute of Design of India and Tokyo University, will be made available on an open source basis, and other materials developed will also be made publicly available for governments and businesses.
Telecom industry watchers said the IBM program addressed a genuine need.
As the population in Europe and North America ages, the need for specialized mobile devices will become acute, said Ben Wood, research director at British consultancy CCS Insight.
Phone makers will have to adapt if they want to appeal to a generation that has grown up with mobile devices, but can't use them in the ways they used to, he said.
Major phone vendors such as Nokia and Samsung Electronics have produced phones with big buttons and simple designs, but have shied away from marketing them specifically to the elderly.
This has opened the market for smaller companies like family-owned Emporia and Sweden's Doro, whose recent study showed most over 65 year-olds in developed markets already own a cellphone.
Austrian Emporia focused solely on phones for the elderly a few years ago after the retired mother of Chief Executive Albert Fellner regularly asked for help with using her phone.
She always drove me crazy with her mobile phone. Every two weeks I had to explain to her how to use it. I gave up. I said I will make you a phone you know how to use, Fellner said.
IBM Research Fellow Chieko Asakawa, in charge of the research programme, has a similar personal experience. She is blind and her first cellphone in 1990s was used mostly for voice communication as opposed to text or other uses.
There was no accessible phone. I just used it to dial and call, she said.
(Editing by David Holmes)