Parents are increasingly handing Web-connected tablets to their kids. Flowing with that trend, several companies are working to create online havens for children and to make money while doing so.
While a new tablet launch isn’t breaking news anymore, there’s one that’s unlike any other yet to be released—it’s a full-fledged mobile computing device for kids ages three to 10 that lets them play educational games, watch videos from providers such as PBS and National Geographic for Kids, as well as engage in social activities like e-mail and video mail. It also has a "Mommy mode" so parents can use it to do grown-up tasks.
Made by Los Angeles-based Fuhu, the new tablet will be called Nabi and will get content from the company’s existing Fooz Kids application, which links to 33,000 educational and kid-friendly websites and has been praised by Mommy bloggers and child safety advocates since its launch this summer. The kicker is the tablet is only going to be about $170.
But what makes it markedly different from other tablets is kids can’t accidentally (or intentionally) land on unsavory sites or interact with people not approved by a parent.
The move is part of a growing trend of companies trying to profit by keeping kids safe online, and not just through traditional parental controls or security monitoring that can screen things like sexually explicit sites. And this inclination by Fuhu to make its platform available on a tablet only makes sense considering the tendency of parents today to offer children a mobile device to keep them entertained in the car, on the train, or during a sibling’s soccer game.
Never mind that an iPad or Android tablet is an expensive plaything to offer to a sticky-fingered tot, parents are doing it.
"A touch screen device is incredibly intuitive," says Andrea Eldridge, tech columnist and CEO of California-based Nerds on Call, a multi-state on-site computer and electronics repair service. "My two-and-a-half-year-old mastered how to launch an app and navigate from his game to the video area on my iPad within a matter of minutes...on the other hand, sit him in front of my laptop and he will bang on the keys, wildly click the mouse, or try to press on the screen."
The only problem is tablets are also a conduit to the Internet—not exactly the most ideal place for a preschooler to hang out. Even so, parents want the freedom to walk away and do other things while their children are engaged with apps, games and Web interfaces. That means they’re looking for kid-friendly tools that are not only entertaining and educational, but safe as well.
Fuhu CEO Jim Mitchell says while there are plenty of safety tools on the market that let parents put a computer into kid mode, they affect the whole machine and parents don’t want that.
"What they want is a place where their kids can go online and they can leave the room…to go do the laundry, or talk on the phone or watch TV. They want to be able to say, ‘Katie—go sit down and do some math online’ or ‘Go play a game online’ and not have to worry about what game they’re playing or where they’re going or if they accidentally clicked on a button that took them somewhere else, or if [a malefactor] actually got to them," he says.
That would be impossible with Fooz Kids. For a child to leave the platform a parent actually has to input a password.
But Fuhu isn’t the only company trying to make tablets safe for kids. Playrific is very similar to Fooz Kids. It’s got seemingly endless curated content for kids, reports for parents about what kinds of activities kids are engaging in while using the site and also requires parental sign-out. It even offers full-length movies such as Benji or VeggieTales or old-school TV show episodes like The Yogi Bear Show.
Playrific caters to teachers as well as parents. Teachers can search educational content in subjects such as literacy, science, math, art and history by age, subject area or media type. They can also group Playrific content to match curriculum themes and lesson plans.
Created in March of last year by serial entrepreneur Beth Marcus, Playrific will soon be releasing iPad and Android tablet apps that it has been testing with parents and kids around the nation and internationally since early this year.
"I ran a mobile company before Playrific and have known for quite some time that children and touch screen devices are a natural fit," says Marcus. "Now that the devices are becoming cheaper and more ubiquitous it is natural that parents should allow their children to use them, especially since they are often on the go and need a way to entertain, educate and engage them."
Marcus is confident she knows what she’s doing. She has been founder and CEO of several successful start-ups, most notably EXOS, a venture capital backed company sold to Microsoft in 1996. She has been involved in 20 start-ups in a variety of fields as a founder, investor, or adviser, including Leap Frog and other entertainment and mobile companies.
Like other companies in this space—such as Zoodles, another popular kid-safe platform now available on iPad and Android tablets—Playrific plans to use the well-tested business model of providing a free version with paid upgrades available.
Offering similar features as the other companies mentioned here, KIDO’Z has an Android app for its platform and offers a week-long trial, hoping that parents will ante up for paid versions thereafter.
"I see lots of folks acknowledging that this youth demographic is worth building apps and content for," says Denise Tayloe, founder and CEO of Privo, an FTC-approved organization that certifies if a site or app is in compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). But Tayloe says just because a site or app is safe for kids doesn’t mean it’s abiding by privacy laws.
Things get dicey, for example, when it comes to how a company communicates with kids, or facilitates communication between kids and other people. What’s better is when a parent is the person a company communicates with, or when parents designate who kids can be in communication with. This seems to be the direction Fooz Kids, Playrific and Zoodles are taking.
"The waters are murkier when you’re creating these products and services for kids. There’s safety and then there’s privacy and there’s a combination of the two that probably provides the best environment," she says.
Fuhu says its Fooz Kids platform is currently being certified by Truste for both Trusted Download as well as COPPA compliance and expects the certification to be in place within the next few weeks. Playrific has been certified to be COPPA compliant by CARU. Zoodles declined to comment.
But is there any money to be made in creating safe online communities for kids? Fuhu recently received $15 million in Series C funding from investors such as Foxconn Technology Group and Kingston Digital, which will be used for the development and promotion of all its products, software and services, including Fooz Kids.
Like Fuhu, Zoodles wouldn’t divulge any information about its financials or user numbers, but as of April the company was boasting that more than a million kids under eight were using its apps. In a press release at that time Zoodles CEO and co-founder Mark Williamson was quoted as saying, "Tablets are dramatically changing the way kids play, but parents still want to know that their child is getting great content, and that the tablet is protected. We only expect our growth rate to rise as families try Kid Mode on their Android tablets."
As for the serial entrepreneur who’s banking her company is going to take off, Playrific’s Beth Marcus had this to say, "As we are a young company it is our ability to attract investment capital from individuals and groups made up of successful entrepreneurs turned investors that have been there themselves [that] speaks to the value of the offerings we are bringing to market."