Technology for the Forgotten: The Case for AARP's RealPad

AARP is launching an android tablet called the RealPad, aimed at tech-shy Boomers and Seniors. It is currently available to order online and will ship in the middle of October. I was asked to moderate the product launch event for the device at the Ideas@50 AARP conference in San Diego earlier this month. What I've read in the press and the blogs since then is what I would have expected: polite acceptance, mixed with some cynical skepticism. Say what you like, though, about AARP's 38 million-member clout, at the end of the day it is a non-profit working to serve its membership. And the RealPad is actually addressing a very real problem -- and a very real audience -- that have not previously been embraced by technology companies.

What caught my attention, in speaking with Terry Bradwell, AARP's CIO and one of the leaders of this initiative, was the experience of AARP's Technology Education & Knowledge (TEK) training teams. Older people are walking into tech training and information events with shrink-wrapped smartphones and tablets, too intimidated to even open the packages, and asking for help.

Full disclosure: I am not one of these people. I have been using a personal computer since 1983, and have been using online services since 1985. But I also have a sister who is 72 (sorry, Vicki...) who finally signed up for an email account just three months ago. We may not like to admit it, but as easy and accessible as technology has become for everyone, there are still probably millions of older people who shy away from it, or for whom it is still an unnatural or uncomfortable ordeal -- one that is only confronted out of necessity, and certainly not out of pleasure.

That is the population for whom the RealPad is intended, and I applaud AARP for recognizing that, and for attempting to reach out and include those people in the larger "conversation." Many of us have experienced the ways in which connectivity and connectedness have transformed the lives of our parents and older family members. Before she died at age 89, my mom, an avid Scrabble player, had discovered an entire online Scrabble community, and I knew that on any given day she was playing two or three games concurrently with online opponents and enjoying herself immensely.

So AARP's mission with the RealPad is to reach out to that last "nth" percentage of people who have been effectively marginalized by technology. This is a completely contrarian approach to the familiar, "early-adopter," feature-bloated tech rat race aimed at a younger, tech-savvy market. I would imagine that tech-shy seniors either dread hearing about another "insanely great" product introduction, or just tune out because it represents one more way in which they feel distanced from the world they (still!) live in. Tech companies who continue to ignore 50+ consumers will likely do so at their own peril, as research is beginning to show.

Does the RealPad solve the problem? It definitely represents a very inviting way for people to participate in the technology revolution if they have previously not known where to turn. Is it revolutionary? Absolutely not. It's just another android tablet. But that's the beauty of it.

What it does do is build in enough hand-holding, step-by-step instruction and 24/7 phone support to allay most any fears that have prevented folks from getting up and running in the past. It eliminates many if not all of the roadblocks that the rest of us just roll right over, but that bedevil and discourage the tech-unsavvy. AARP has simply and elegantly bridged all the gaps.

It is also a non-profit product. AARP isn't looking to make money off of this. So we need to think of the RealPad not as a competitor to the iPad or the Galaxy Tab, e.g., but as a unique service to AARP's constituency (and not just their members). It is entirely dedicated to getting people onto screens and into the connected online social ecosystem. The Wall Street Journal's blog post on the launch called the RealPad, "The Tablet for Grandma." I don't know if they were being cute or condescending, but I'm OK with that designation. If it gets Grandma online, and speaking the same language as her grandkids, then it will be a rousing success.

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