Apple’s iPad Needs A Kid Mode. Like, Yesterday.

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“No, don’t hit that button.” “Hit the red X.” “Don’t tap on the ones with the stars.” “No, go back with the arrow.” “Not that one.” “No, here.”

These are the kinds of things I’m constantly having to say to my three-year-old as she explores the world of iPad applications on her first computer, my hand-me-down iPad 1. At her age, she’s too young to understand the nuances of how in-app purchases work – or even read for that matter – but that hasn’t stopped app developers whose apps are targeted at her age range from including confusing mechanisms to direct their youngest fans to in-app purchases, upgrades, and new app installs.

Just a few days ago, Apple made headlines when it had to refund customers in the U.K. when their five-year-old boy accidentally spent $2,500 in in-app purchases in just 15 minutes. It’s odd to me that much of the response has blamed the parents, tut-tutting about their failure to enable the appropriate restrictions and parental controls on their iPad before handing it over to the child. Maybe they should have RTFM (ahem, read the manual, as the expression goes), it’s true. But at the end of the day, while this is an extreme example of what can go wrong (and here’s another), it’s at the far end of the spectrum of a completely broken model in terms of how Apple’s youngest users are interacting with its technology and mobile applications.

It’s a downright poor experience today.

From a parent’s standpoint, when it comes to selecting applications that are appropriate for children, the App Store offers an overwhelming selection. The top charts help to some extent, but it’s hard to qualify the educational value these apps offer. Some startups like KinderTown and YogiPlay are trying to change that, but they’re still struggling to get picked up by mainstream users in large numbers. So parents generally hunt and peck, read descriptions, look at pictures, then download. Only after the apps are in the kids’ hands do they realize that wow, that app may not have been the best choice after all. But now it’s the kid’s favorite new thing and deleting it would not go unnoticed.

So the apps remain.

And the kids tap the wrong buttons, accidentally buy things or, in the case where parents do have controls enabled, cry because they can’t. And whine. Wonderful.

It’s enough to make even the most tech-savvy parent want to rip the iPad from the child’s hands and yell, go play outside! 

Of course, I can’t fault the app developers for installing revenue-generating mechanisms into their applications. Companies need to make money, and development is expensive. But the freemium model makes much more sense in the world of apps for grown-ups, where the users themselves are the decision-makers holding the purse strings. Kids will just blindly click and tap and buy if there are no restrictions.

Parents choose free apps for kids over paid ones for a number of reasons. For starters, there’s no “try before you buy” mechanism in the iTunes App Store, so developers tend to either launch a “lite” version or a single app that includes an upgrade path through an in-app purchase. The model makes some sense, as it’s hard to say if junior will appreciate that $4.99 investment in his new digital toy. But it also means that iPad becomes littered with apps that aren’t fully functional and that continually ask the child to buy, buy, buy.

Not only is this an annoyance for parents, it puts up barriers between the technology and the child. Kids are learning quickly that in so many of their apps, there are sections that break the experience, redirecting them to the App Store, taking them to screens unrelated to gameplay and other odd behavior.

I can see first-hand the impact this has on my own child even at the age of three. In new apps, we’ll sit side-by-side, and I see her hesitate to tap obvious buttons like the big green “GO” button, or the little house-shaped “Home,” for example. “This?” she will ask me. After being on the iPad long before her first birthday, my daughter is now used to me telling her “no, not that one.” I have to guide her through the new freemium apps, so she can learn the nuances of which things you should tap or not tap in a particular one.

Parents also choose free/freemium apps because kids tire of some applications relatively fast. Like bigger people, kids want a little variety, too. But more importantly, they also outgrow educational apps quickly – there’s a big developmental leap between age three and four, for example, when it comes to what the child is learning at that time.

It’s Not Just Apps That Are Broken  

The way parents find, install and purchase apps for their kids’ iPads isn’t the only thing that’s inexplicably broken on these mini computers. So are those ham-fisted parental controls in iOS. Today, they’re “all or nothing” switches that either turn on or off default iPad apps entirely. Parents must decide between web browser or no web browser. Should the child never be able to install or delete apps? Ever? Use the camera? Browse the iBookstore?

Why not a little nuance and assistance here? Let the kids surf a web of white-listed websites, like Disney or Nickelodeon’s homepages, perhaps. Or surf in safe mode. Let them install the free apps, but not the paid ones. Let them browse a kid-friendly section of the bookstore. Oh, and those app ratings? A mess. Turn on ratings for younger kids only, and watch Netflix disappear from the homescreen – arguably the most-used app of dozens on any kid’s iPad. (I should also point out that Netflix’s “kid mode” doesn’t work on iPad 1, which is likely the hand-me-down iPad that’s in the hands of most kids today. Genius.)

Just Fix It

There’s a lot of room for improvement here and a million ways it could be done. The iPad could offer a “kid sign in” that lets kids use the device in a safe mode of sorts. The Android ecosystem is full of solutions for this problem, including things like KIDO’Z, Kytephone, Play Safe and others. And Android developers can more deeply integrate with and take control of various operating system features. But developers can’t solve this problem on Apple’s platform – only Apple can. And where are they on this? Getting beat by Windows Phone 8’s OS, for god’s sake. Even it has a built-in kid mode.

Stopping short of setting up kid accounts, sign-ins or special modes, Apple could do more to enforce the naughtiness prevalent in the kids’ app ecosystem, which encourages the errant purchases. Apple could offer a subscription service plan where parents can download a select number of apps per month, or one where usage is monitored and developers get their cut based on actual app activity.

Bypassing Apple, there’s also a little wiggle room for developers to take charge. Many kids’ apps come from larger studios with big portfolios, so at the very least, these app makers could test such similar subscriptions ahead of any official moves by Apple.

These Are Kids’ Computers

According to some reports, over 80 percent of the “educational” apps are aimed at children (and growing). Nickelodeon’s research into the market found that 27 percent of U.S. households with kids aged three to five had an iPad as of October 2012, up from 22 percent in April. Forty percent of those preschoolers used educational apps on the iPad, up from 27 percent. In addition, Apple device owners were willing to pay 15 to 23 percent more for apps in that category.

At this point, I’m beyond wanting to argue for one solution over another – I just want Apple to pick one solution – ANY SOLUTION – and implement it. We’re on the fourth generation of iPad now, after all. There’s even a kid-sized iPad mini.

It’s not just humorous that some toddler thinks magazines should work like tablets, it’s simply a reflection of reality: Our babies are now computer users. But kids need guidelines and boundaries. Apple is long overdue in addressing the needs of parents and children with the way it has structured its app ecosystem, the rules for those targeting kids and parental-control mechanisms. Apple needs to start looking out for the kids, or risk losing parents’ trust.

Update: Looks like the recent news of the kid’s overspend has prompted other thoughts on this, too. Totally agree – it’s time for a debate