It's an easy mistake to make: Believing technology nowadays only focuses on a narrow, decidedly younger swath of the market. But companies dissing the Baby Boomer set do so at their own peril.
In fact, the Boomer market, with its disposable income and increasing eagerness to embrace easier-to-use technologies, is, well, booming. And big companies, including Intel , Microsoft , Apple , and others, are racing to capture marketshare.
How big an opportunity are we talking about? If you believe a research project from late 2009 from AARP and Microsoft, the 50-and-over-crowd will make up one-third of the U.S. population and will outspend younger shoppers by an estimated $1 trillion this year.
Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, the guy behind the musical synthesizer and voice recognition, told me at the big Consumer Electronics Show last month that the aging population presents enormous opportunities for innovation and commerce. Kurzweil unveiled his version of an e-reader he calls Blio, that offers a text-to-speech capability so seniors and visually impaired readers can still enjoy books electronically.
His remarkably intuitive software, which works on laptops and smartphones alike, runs circles around other e-readers out there now simply because Kurzweil tweaked his technology to appeal to a part of the market that might be ignored by others.
Still not buying it? Just look at the research: 46 percent of Boomers were "very nervous" about the economy in 2008; but that main concern has now been displaced by the cost of healthcare. That might mean they're ready to spend a little more.
In a recent survey conducted for Continuum Crew and written about by the Center for Media Research, Boomers are least willing to give up Internet access, versus the top response a year earlier, which was their cell phones. The same survey shows Boomers now spend more time than ever online. The majority of Boomers surveyed have joined Facebook within the last 6 months; and more of them are getting media, entertainment and news from the Internet, rather than from traditional media distributors. In fact, Facebook now confirms that its fastest growing demographic is women 55 and over. And blogs, like thesavvyboomer.com and techandboomers.blogspot.com, are cropping up like mushrooms all over the web.
Apple will tell you that its one-to-one teaching sessions inside the company's 284 retail locations are populated more and more by Boomer customers nowadays.
It gets better. According to VibrantNation.com, Boomer women are adapting to new technologies faster than their male counterparts. And the numbers would suggest an enormous market opportunity for savvy consumer electronics makers. Consider that 80 percent of this market still listens to CDs and 40 percent buy more than six CDs annually. Where's the opportunity? Well, 45 percent say they listen to downloaded music, which means a big chunk of the market is aware of the technology but haven't jumped all the way in.
Likewise for DVDs, which 75 percent of the Boomers polled watch on their TVs, but 31 percent already watch on their computers. About 16 percent now own a Kindle from Amazon or other type of e-reader, and 67 percent say they would like to own one.
Smart phones are also gaining momentum, with 26 percent saying they use the device for more than merely phone calls and e-mails: 62 percent use their smart phones to surf the web and "search" for stuff; 42 percent use the device to listen to music and 23 percent watch movies and videos on their phones.
Posit Science is another company taking advantage of these trends. The company's mind-sharpening software continues to be used by medical facilities across the country, and the same video-game-like software was adapted last year to help drivers improve their reaction times and motor skills. Brain Toot, brain games for the Boomer crowd from Vertical Moon is one of hundreds of Boomer-oriented apps on the Apple App Store.
And Glow-Cap from a company called Vitality has created a smart pill bottle. The electronic device reminds you when to take medication, how much you're supposed to take, and a link to the net that allows the device to call or email you with a reminder to take your meds. Oh, and there's even a function that lets the bottle email your doctor, tattling on you in case you forget!
The fact is, Boomers might be the single biggest beneficiaries of new technologies, especially as it relates to healthcare. Intel for one is earmarking something like $1 billion in new research specifically geared to healthcare: Automated medical records; tablet, networked computers to give doctors more data access at while meeting with patients; and other smart devices for patients to use in their homes.
It might be cool for the younger set to sport those iconic white earbuds, showing off their new iPods. But increasingly, and even dramatically, tech companies are focusing on a decidedly older generation to generate new revenue. And remember, today's "Gen X's" and "Gen Y's" are tomorrow's Boomers. Hook them young with great gadgets today, and you've got customers for life.
In an economy like this one, I'm not suggesting that Boomers are somehow ready to spend willy-nilly on some gizmo or gadget just for fun. But more and more companies are innovating new devices and software specifically geared to this market that could make life easier and healthier. Not toys, but tools, along with that added-value approach, may indeed spell success for the tech companies trying to tap the lucrative Boomer market.
- Read Jim Goldman's 'Tech Check' Blog
- Fiorina: Boomers Mortgage the Next Generation's Future
- Take the Quiz: Test Your Boomer Smarts
Watch "Tom Brokaw Reports: Boomer$!", Thursday, March 4 at 9pm ET on CNBC. The program will also air Saturday, March 6 at 7pm ET; Sunday, March 7th at 9pm ET; and Monday, March 8th at 8pm ET.