I've done it, have you? I have a feeling most of us have passed our cellphones back to a kid in the backseat so we could drive in peace while the child (who has been hounding us to let it happen) plays a game app. Of course, increasingly, this is happening with really little kids, because the bigger ones have their own cellphones ("way back" in 2010, Pew/Internet reported that 75% of US 12-to-17-year-olds had their own phones, up from 45% in 2004).
Parents are now awash in options for those mobile games and edutainment, especially parents of the littlest phone users. Not just because there are 500,000+ apps for iPhones and 400,000+ for Android phones, as I reported earlier. But also because "apps for toddlers/preschoolers are the most popular age category (58%) and experienced the greatest growth (23%)," according to the Joan Ganz Cooney Center researchers at Sesame Workshop in their new report, "iLearn II: An Analysis of the Education Category of Apple’s App Store." The authors even wonder if app developers should "consider potential saturation of this [early education] market." They found that 72% of the top-selling paid apps in the Education category of the Apple store are for preschool or elementary aged kids, compared to 47% in 2009. Overall, though, "apps are an important and growing medium for providing educational content to children," the Cooney Center suggests, not just because there are so many but also because they're so popular with kids.
Confused consumers, fledgling industry
So parents as well as providers (from app developers to publishers) have a similar problem right now. Parents needs to know how to find the best apps for their kids' purposes and interests, and providers need to figure out how to find the parents who want their apps. There are Apple's App Store and the Android Marketplace, but only a fraction of what's available can be featured and thus found. Determining quality is even harder. There are a number of review sites, but who really knows what they're talking about and how can one tell? If you rely on familiar brands, big ones like Disney, PBS Kids, Pearson are no help, because they're barely in the mix, reportedly waiting to see how both the business models and the market develop before making big investments.
We're watching a new growth industry sort it all out, with: few metrics or standards; lots of guesswork about the market; ratings systems of various sorts in the works (see this); multiplying questions about user data privacy; developers seeking advice from the Federal Trade Commission; startups and independent developers trying to figure out how to sustain a business; large companies' not yet fully engaged; a new industry trade association (ACTonline.org); and predictable calls from lawmakers for regulation.
There's even an impressive Children's App Manifesto with some 260 signatures from people in North America, Australia, Asia, and Europe. Its co-author Dan Donahoo in Melbourne, Australia, told me via email that it's particularly interesting to him (and me too) that it has been signed so far mostly by app developers (but also psychologists, educators, marketers, authors, illustrators, parents, and bloggers). Why is that interesting? It's a sign that developers are seeking standards of business practice and product quality (in terms of pedagogy and entertainment). They're also interested in combining forces with parents to find out more about what we and our kids want.
Crowd-sourcing business development
Another sign is the pioneering Moms With Apps, a collaborative of app developers who are also parents "seeking to promote quality apps for kids and family." They publishe a free app catalog on iTunes. "We are seeing is a more thoughtful approach to design and development for children, especially from independent developers … led by the discussions and community that has built up over at Moms with Apps [who] act in some ways as a type of industry body (but not officially)," Donahoo, who was also a contributor to the Cooney Center report, writes in Wired's GeekDad blog. I would add that they're a new, or new millennium, type of industry body that functions like a cross-functional team in a social media environment – like the industry it serves, something to watch.
Reading the Cooney Center's pioneering report and attending events about mobile apps for kids, I feel like I'm back in the mid-'90s covering Web issues and resources for kids and parents. The Cooney Center report suggests that too – pointing to a similar juncture to the one 45 years ago, when Joan Ganz Cooney founded the Children's Television Workshop to pioneer the idea that TV could be educational as well as entertaining for children. And this time, too, what's now called Sesame Workshop has recommendations for a media industry, even though – unlike television in the late '60s – it's an industry only just poised to take off. And it's taking off in a very different media environment: a very social, user-driven one that calls for collective discovery and development like that of Moms With Apps.
ACT, the app industry's new trade association, says apps are a $7 billion business now and projected to be a $50 billion one in 2015, just three years from now. But it's as hard for that market – us parents – to find the apps we want for our kids as it is for the developers to find us. Not all apps can make it to the Top 20 or 50 of the giant app stores, and that's not enough for parents to go on. So is there life beyond the big app stores? Watch this space!
* Notable numbers: The last week of 2011 was the largest week for cellphone activations and app downloads ever, with more than 20 million iOS and Android devices activated and 1.2 billion applications downloaded, according to mobile analytics firm Flurry.
* You should also know about Teachers With Apps, by teachers for "parents, grandparents, teachers, administrators and anyone else" to help them find what's truly good among the zillions of "educational" apps. Here's their guest post in author and educator Annie Fox's blog.
* Other coverage of the Cooney Center report besides Wired's: "Educational apps for early learners see huge jump" at eSchoolNews and "Apps for preschoolers experience strong growth" at kidscreen.com
* CommonSenseMedia's "8 ways to save (and spend) on 'free' apps"
* "The dirty little secret about mobile apps" – how tough it has been for developers to build a business on apps and why in MobileCommerceDaily.com
* In "Kid apps explode on smartphones and tablets. But are they good for your children?", the Washington Post pulls together lots of views about parenting, mobile phones, and apps.
* The National Cybersecurity Alliance's "Mobile Privacy Tips"
* "Growth in all facets of US mobile use"