Building apps for children a profitable niche

By Annys Shin
Monday, July 19, 2010

When Lynette Mattke's children were small, they did not watch television. The only TV in the house was for movies. And then, only on weekends. They didn't have iPods, video games or computers. The played with handmade dolls and wooden toys.

"We were very cautious about media," said Mattke, who lives in Silver Spring. "We didn't want them to be addicted to technology."

Then 18 months ago, her husband, Manuel, who works in technology, brought home an iPod Touch. Mattke went looking in the iTunes applications store for audio books. She found very little geared for young kids. Four months later, she started working on a picture book app for babies, toddlers and grade schoolers called PicPocket Books and soon after co-founded a consortium of independent developers of educational apps called Moms With Apps that acts as an entrepreneurial support group as well as a brand.

That a tech-leery mother would make apps for tots might seem contradictory at first, but Mattke said one role evolved from the other.

"The technology tide is irresistible, especially for children," she said. "I decided it was better to contribute positively instead of taking a reactionary, orthodox stance."

Mattke and her husband both attended schools that use the Waldorf approach to education, as did their children. The Waldorf approach is based on the teachings of philosopher Rudolf Steiner, and it emphasizes experiential learning and discourages exposing children to electronic media before sixth grade. That is a much more restrictive stance than the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is no screen time before age 2.

As Mattke's daughters entered their teens, she and her husband eased their restrictions. The girls are now 13 and 15 have cellphones and iPods. They use Hulu and are on Facebook. They still have to follow rules, of course, such as keeping electronic media on the ground floor where their parents can see them. And there are prohibitions that extend outside the home. As Mattke gave an interview recently, her 10-year-old son, before going to a friend's house, handed her a note that read, "At Jack and Henry's. No Wii. I know."

Since her goal is to foster a love of reading, Mattke takes pains when adapting books for mobile phones to remain faithful to the original text. She uses largely static images with a few minor enhancements: a narrator, words that light up as they are spoken and a touch of clever animation.

The result is not quite like reading a book, but not quite like watching a video either. Mattke alludes to the hybrid nature of the experience on a promotional video, in which she asks her beta testers Miles and Lila Grovic, "Do you watch or do you read?"

The children, who are 6 and 4, don't answer because they are too busy talking about the story.

The question is probably moot anyway; it seems weird only for those of us with an analog past.

Watching Lila slide her fingers across the screen, it is easy to see why parents find apps so seductive. They can control the content. The portability suits modern families' overscheduled lives. Apps are not yet a time suck; their use is often limited by how long it takes to get through traffic or to the front of a line.

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