A Mobile Manifesto: Let’s Keep Talking

by Carly Shuler
November 21, 2011

Children's App Manifesto

Here at the Cooney Center, we often talk about the importance of multi-disciplinary collaboration, and I love it when talented people from different sectors of the industry get together and do something great.  Last week, brilliant app developer Andy Russell of Launchpad Toys joined forces with one of my favorite kids-tech writers, Dan Donahoo of WIRED’s GeekDad blog, on what I think is an extremely important initiative.  The pair has released the Children’s App Manifesto, which was unveiled via this article in the Huffington Post.  The objective of the manifesto is for everyone with a “stake in the game” in the educational app market to unite and embrace a more sustainable business model.

When I heard about this manifesto, my first thought was: Awesome!  My second thought was: What really is the intention of a manifesto? So I called Andy, who was kind enough to chat with me about his hopes and dreams for this important declaration.  He made it clear that the manifesto does not aim to be a policy, a seal of approval, or a formal set of rules.  The knowledgeable duo really just want to start a conversation, and perhaps shift some perceptions that are making it a difficult for innovative educational app developers to sustain themselves, never mind make a profit.

So, in the interest of doing just that, I’m not going to summarize the manifesto.  I suggest you take a moment and read it yourself; it is short, well-articulated and to the point.  And then, once you have read it, take the time to discuss it, share comments, and spread the word.  Here are a few talking points to get you started:

Where do you draw the line when selling apps to kids?

As we all know, there is a fine line between what is acceptable and what crosses the line in terms of selling to kids.  This line was difficult to navigate within age-old media, and is even more complex in this rapidly evolving market where new revenue models are constantly emerging.  I’ve written about my strong opposition to in-app purchases of virtual goods (think Smurfberries).  Andy and Dan draw the line at game-play consumables, which Andy defined as something that is purchased and then consumed (think coins in Tap Zoo).  And what about commercial branding?  As I know all too well from my days in the toy industry, it’s a slippery slope from a license to a label-slap.  Of all the important issues this manifesto raises, I hope that we keep talking about this one, because right now, we don’t even have consistent definitions around what these models mean, never mind what is OK.  Where do you draw the line?

What can we do about the App Gap?

At the Cooney Center, we are always balancing a tension around focusing on emerging technologies, when the truth is that the children most in need often don’t have access to those technologies.  Apps may be one of the most salient examples of that tension.  The recent Zero to Eight study by Common Sense Media is the first to document the “App Gap,” which found that almost half the families with incomes above $75,000 had downloaded apps specifically for their young children, whereas more than a third of low-income parents said they did not know what an app was.  As we are discussing business models, how can we think out of the box to enable apps to narrow rather than widen the digital divide?

What role should Apple play in enabling a “sustainable, fair, and merit-based” market?

Does Apple have a role here?  Some may say that Apple has created a free market, and that they have no further responsibility.  I actually think that they play an immensely important role.  For instance, they recently launched an app store volume purchase program that allows educational institutions to purchase iOS Apps and distribute the apps to their users.  This is just a first step in enabling a market that works for educators.  And what about helping parents?  Andy had some great suggestions, such as an allowance system for kids, and a toddler mode that he analogized to the iOS newsstand.  What, if anything, do you think Apple should do?

What constitutes “educational” in an App?

As the app market for children continues to explode, thousands of apps are claiming to teach children about everything from arithmetic to astronomy. However, there are currently no standards of educational value to help parents, children and educators discern if the products in the marketplace live up to their educational claims.  This has been a long-standing issue in the educational toy and game industry, and perhaps one that we can tackle from the get-go in apps.  What does it mean to be educational in the app market, and how can we help parents and educators differentiate the pedagogically sound from those that just claim to be?

Is there a role for formal policy? 

Concern about children’s ability to understand and evaluate advertising and commercialization has been the topic of much research, debate and policy-making for the past four decades, and acts such as The Children’s Television Act have been put in place to protect children from inappropriate commercialism.  Should this act be updated for a digital age?  I think that in the long term, apps will be both better for kids and better for business if we have good policies from the get-go, and perhaps some policy work could help protect apps from getting the same bad rap that mediums like video games have been battling for years.  What kind of policy could protect kids, parents, and developers without hindering creative development and innovation?

And my final question … how do we spread the word?

In my experience, the educational app community is made up of some of the most ethical, passionate, creative people I have ever worked with, and I have little doubt that this intimate developer community will get on board with this initiative.  But how do we go beyond preaching to the choir, and instead do exactly what the authors intend — start a conversation that includes not only independent developers, but also parents, educators, investors and large corporations?