July 04, 2010

The iPad is the New Electronic Babysitter 2.0

The television has long been referred to as an electronic babysitter for busy parents, or their lazy, less-involved counterparts. Rather than designing interactive projects for their children, it's far easier to flip a switch to the tube and see the kids' faces go blank, but planted in one spot, for hours at a time. Be it children's cartoons, Disney movies or PBS, it's practically a time-honored tradition. In our home, the TV stays off, and the iPads come on, performing a similar function, but with an added twist, where the kids are interacting with the device, selecting programs, or browsing YouTube with their short attention spans and curious minds.

When I purchased the two iPads in our home, the theory was that one of the devices was for me, and the other was for my wife, to be shared with Matthew and Sarah, our twins who turned two years old near the end of June. But the truth is that I am almost exclusively still on the MacBook Air (or the HTC EVO) and use the iPad sporadically. But for my kids, it's practically an obsession. Both kids know how to say "Apple" and can ask for the iPads by name. They will even point to the door to our room, where they know they are stored (and charging) and ask us to go get them.

Matthew Shows His Sports Acumen on the iPad

As my kids have grown up around iPhones, they have practically been raised around touch screen interfaces, and they took to the iPads almost immediately. Matthew and Sarah both play the many sports games on the devices, including an array from Skyworks, ranging from bowling, soccer, baseball, and basketball, to the time-honored Skee-ball. If the game has a ball and consists of you flicking from one side of the screen to the other, they've pretty much got it nailed. And over time, I have seen them learn their favorite applications, and watch them navigate dialog boxes and go from screen to screen to start new parts of the app, or exit to a new one.

In addition to the simple games, Matthew and Sarah both enjoy an application called Doodle Buddy, which lets them essentially fingerpaint on the device, use stamps for frequently-used graphics, from dogs and cats to trees and emoticons.

Matthew and Sarah Get Early Access to iPads

Also, I can't underestimate the pervasiveness of YouTube in our home, now that the iPads have brought the world's amateur video network to be one click away on the iPads. Now it's a common scene to see Sarah in her PJs, sippy cup to one side and snack trap to the other, filled with Cheerios, intently choosing from her YouTube history to watch animals and people in all manner of antics. Sure enough, we get our fair share of annoying theme songs stuck in our head, but unlike the TV, the videos don't last 30 minutes and aren't interrupted by blatant advertising.

As a parent, there are a few changes I would like to make to the iPad in terms of how my kids have access to the device. I would like to have a setting which requires a password to delete applications from the device, or to move them off the dock or around the screen. I've come home to find my Dock empty, and apps in new places, or apps vanish, requiring me to download them again. And I would also like to set a volume maximum so even if Sarah swipes from left to right on her favorite YouTube video, that it's not blaring. I'd love to disable the home button to make the iPad more of a kiosk. And yes, if either of them bump into content that's not my favorite, it would be good to add a specific video or video publisher to a "Don't show again" list, so they don't get rediscovered.

Unlike televisions, the iPads are also light and portable, and can go from room to room or place to place. So while we haven't exercised this option too frequently, we could have the kids watching YouTube in their car seats while tapping into my WiFi hotspot from the front seat. We can even hand each kid an iPad and send them to different rooms if conflicts arrive. And while the Internet is a big place indeed, the kids' ability to point and click keeps them much further away from the darker corners than once they learn the ability to type and search for keywords, so we're in a pretty safe place today, one filled with silly songs, sports, animals and video after video of giggling babies.

I guess that in our home it was pretty much guaranteed our kids would be gadget freaks at a young age. I promise they're getting their share of traditional learning with real hardbound books, blocks, and the usual array of cars, trucks and balls of all kinds, but you throw iPads into the mix, and it opens up a new world that has our TV remaining off. It's a fantastic market segment for Apple that no other manufacturer can match for a combination of ease of use and realm of possibility.