Building apps for children a profitable niche

By Annys Shin
Monday, July 19, 2010; 26

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.

Most importantly, though, apps don't carry the stigma that other electronic media do, in particular television, with its well-documented links to childhood obesity and aggression. And so far they've been lauded by media literacy experts.

Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Technology Review, recently told the Boston Globe that if he could, he would bring seminal child development psychologist Jean Piaget back from the grave just to give him an iPhone.

"You can play with representation and manipulate symbols in a way you could never before," he said in a separate interview. "To turn off and dismiss this technology's potential for a child is the worst mistake you can make."

With such positive reviews and the growing popularity of Apple's mobile devices, the rush for apps for children is likely to continue unabated. Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon and Disney have entered the field, all of them striving to make the most of the pass-back -- the term of art used to describe parents surrendering their mobile phones to their kids in hopes of preventing crying jags by distracting them.

So far, the business of meltdown management appears to be recession-proof. As of November, 60 percent of the 25 top-selling apps were for toddlers, according to an analysis done by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. A PicPocket book costs between 99 cents and $3.99. Apple takes 30 percent off the top. The balance is split among the publishers, voice-over talent, technical folks and Mattke, who said PicPocket is already profitable enough to work as a second income.

Looking to connect with other app makers, Mattke got together with two Bay Area women, Jill Seman and Lorraine Akemann, to form Moms With Apps, which now has about 70 members. The developers in Moms With Apps trade advice and commiserate and, most importantly, cross-promote each other's apps, which has become even more important as apps for little ones proliferate. A few of the group's members have struck it big, with the prime example being one known as "Duck Duck Moose," the creators of a top-selling Wheels on the Bus app. The rest, such as Tracey and William Weil of the District, are slowly building name recognition and sales.

The Palisades couple in February launched an app called Tales2Go that provides audio stories. A year's subscription costs $24.99. The Weils have partnered with dozens of leading storyteller publishers, including a division of Scholastic Inc., for content and with Stitcher, the top news talk app for smartphones. They won't discuss revenue figures, but said they aren't profitable yet.

While they may not achieve the same level of success, the members share the same goal. "We want to help people use technology responsibly," Mattke said.

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