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CTR March 2018
Vol. 27 No. 3 Issue 217

Download this issue as a PDF
There’s a Plague Killing Off Children’s App Publishers
“If you have an ugly book, you’ll get ugly AR” BRDA Jurors, from the 2018 Juror Commentary video.

There’s a Plague Killing Off Children’s App Publishers
Several of the best children’s app publishers have stopped making apps. The number of new children’s iPad apps we’ve reviewed has dropped from 673 in 2013, to just 105 last year. What’s going on and what should be done? See page 4.

More Lessons from Bologna
Last week, we brought you the results of the BolognaRagazzi Digital Award judging. This week we can give you the final version of the video, where the jurors discuss their findings. Several of the winners and jurors will gather on March 25 at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair to discuss the winners. This year there were five winners from the 116 products entered, from 25 countries. The big news? Augmented reality (AR) made some significant advances, with UK based Carlton Publishing taking the prize. Here’s the video https://youtu.be/a6bOmdQ3xIM

LittleClickers: Coral Reef
Tinybop’s 10th title in the Explorer Series was the inspiration behind this month’s Littleclickers column. Learn more about the world’s largest living organism at http://www.littleclickers.com/reef, and on page 3.

More Video from Toy Fair and Nintendo
This issue of CTR has more new tech products from Toy Fair and additional details on Nintendo Labo.


If this newsletter was about farming, we’d most certainly write conditions affecting crops, like a shortage of seeds. What’s going on in the children’s app space is nothing short of a plague.

The plummet in the number of new releases may seem strange, because there’s certainly plenty of demand. People are having more media hungry children, and the installed base of connected devices that can run children’s apps has nearly tripled since 2013. In addition, tools for making children’s apps, like Unity, Swift and ARKit have improved.

But releases from many ethical (see the definition of ethical, below) publishers have dropped off. In 2013, we reviewed 673 releases from studios like Toca Boca, Nosy Crow, Touch Press and Duck Duck Moose. In 2017, that number dropped to 105 -- just 15.6% of the 2013 amount.

First a definition. What is an “ethical” children’s app?
An ethical children’s app keeps a clear line between two types of content: editorial and commercial. It carves out a clear “safe zone” for the child, where they won’t be teased or tempted by content or items that require money to purchase. It’s all about intentions. It’s also important to note that “free” doesn’t mean unethical. Some free (or “freemium”) apps were funded by grants, or are given away as playable samples to build brand awareness.

What’s causing the dramatic decline in ethical content? 
What’s going on? We put this question out to children’s app publishers on the “Developer Exchange” Facebook page. Here are some common themes.

• Nobody spends money on apps anymore. “I asked a group of parents about their media use, mostly they say they use free apps or they have a Kindle Fire so it comes with a subscription,” said one publisher. “Maybe one person out of 20 said they bought apps. If I'm honest with myself, I don't buy anywhere near the number of kids apps I used to. If there is something specific and educational now that my kids are in school I am more likely to. But with toy apps, so much feels the same these days and my kids already have a million of those same apps on the device. I've reached a point of ‘do I need anymore of its not new?’’’

• YouTube. Free videos turn a child’s tablet into an all-you-can-eat TV. With millions of channels on just about any topic, what child has time for apps? When it’s linear media vs. interactive media, the easy option usually gets the device.

• Apple’s app system is a king maker. If you are featured, you get downloads. For small publishers, that is increasingly unlikely. When you have to search to find the search icon in Apple’s App Store, you have to wonder if Apple even wants you to find that obscure app. Apple wants to control what you see, to increase the chances that you’ll stumble upon something that generates income, both for their valued partners and for them. Once you do find the search icon (the small magnifying glass on the bottom right) the results are blurry. Trying to find that controller app for your new flying toy, or an AR app for a book is hard because the search results include hundreds of results, with confusingly similar titles. Free, sponsored and paid options are freely mixed. “I think the root cause is that parents don't want to spend too much time determining what is ‘good’ and what isn't.” said Francois Boucher-Genesse of Ululab.

• App store ratings are polluted and diluted, and review sites of dried up. Publishers complained that credible review sites have also gone out of business, or now charge to have an app reviewed, leaving consumers with only app store ratings to guide them. But Apple articles lack context, and the ratings can be inconsistent or inaccurate.

• Free apps have another cost: playtime. What is the value of childhood playtime? Some apps steal this time, by leading a child into a sand trap of time-stealing temptation. Increasingly we’re seeing apps that ask a child to come back in 24 hours for a reward, or to watch a 60 second commercial to advance in a level. We fear that the children’s interactive space is becoming a culture of trickery and manipulation.

• Apple has too much power. Imagine if farmers had to buy all their supplies from one store. The land, seeds, tractors -- even the weather forecasts -- were all from the same business entity. When it comes to apps, one single, private US corporation has a majority of the control. Apple is the curator, reviewer, editor, bank and store clerk; and they have absolute control over the hardware that makes it all work. Today’s App Store features a tabloid format with click bait headlines and bite-sized editorial written by anonymous authors. Each article has the same ending -- a purchase link. This faux “journalism” with words like “editor’s choice” is just sheeps clothing for a profit agenda (again, consider the intentions). The result is a “rich get richer” model -- where trending products with earning potential get featured; and unknowns are pushed to bottom of the search algorithm. Competitors to Apple could force change, but Google Play and Amazon continue to copy Apple instead of offering a better service. Amazon’s all-you-can-eat model is good in theory but doesn’t include enough quality interactive content. From our point of view, Jeff Bezos views children as a way to harvest future Amazon Prime subscribers, and his bait is an $80 tablet. And Google continues to operate an app store that is the wild west of copyright infringement.

• Code rot. Apple’s System 11 killed thousands of ethical children’s apps because the new operating system clashed with old code, and the developers are no longer around to do the updates. We were sad to see that the fonts in Disney Animated no longer display properly, and many of the prior winners of the BolognaRagazzi Digital Award no longer load. Instead, Apple asks consumers to contact the publisher to tell them to update their app.

• A culture of manipulation. Commercial transactions are based on trust. We’ve watched as this trust has eroded in app stores. Consider Angry Birds 2. It is featured and has high ratings. But the “free”download is nothing more than a lure into a blind alley. The game play and tutorials are amazing, but each passing minute brings more “friction” against the commercial agenda. After an hour, you’ll be watching commercials or pay real money in order to advance in the game. That’s not fair.

Dear Mr. Cook ... “Children’s publishers need your help.”
How can Apple’s iTunes team help ethical children’s app producers?  By showing that they understand that marketing products to children comes with a responsibility to do the right thing. We asked app publishers to give us three things suggestions for Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. Kristin Heitmann of ApppMedia offered five. Mr. Cook, if you read no further, here’s the short list: 

• Provide a searchable and findable App Store. Same for Google.
• Make it possible to browse and search VPP (Volume Purchase Program) apps (ones that are free of IAP and “free” options).
• Increase the revenue potential for ethical children’s developers.
• Educate teachers and parents. Help them identify pedagogically valid experiences without gimmicks.
• Kick out the rubbish.

Pierre Able of L'Escapadou agrees with the idea of making it easier for parents to shop from a list of paid apps. “I think Apple has a hidden treasure, because they know exactly which apps are bought by schools (via VPP). They could use this data to show which apps are the most used in schools to help shoppers spot the apps without IAP and no subscriptions.” Here are some more ideas.

Create an Indie fund A company that earned $28 billion from app sales (in 2016 per ZDNet) could spring for an Indie fund for ethical children’s app makers. Not only is it the right thing to do, it supports Apple’s hardware. Nancy MacIntyre of Fingerprint said “Apple and Google should create a fund for quality content creators to develop apps for their platforms, much like Playstation, XBox, Amazon do. They should also offer a reduced royalty rate for kids or educational developers so it's easier to make money, and they should take no revenue share on apps sold into schools. And they should make the app store much friendlier to indie developers beyond relying on app store merchandising options.” 

Make it easier to for app makers to communicate with customers “Being able to communicate with our users would be useful,” says Valérie Gangnat Touze of Edoki Academy. “Normal marketing tools don't apply to children's apps so we should be considered differently. Just like iAPs cannot be shared in Family Sharing which makes absolutely no sense for our products.”

Stop encouraging the free/subscription model This came up repeatedly. Apple is making it so that the only way to survive is to create “free” content with hidden hooks to get parents to pay. But these doesn’t always fit when it comes to children. Pierre Abel wrote “I created a freemium version of my best-seller for this reason, but of course, the app has no visibility and the sales are much much lower than the paid version, which has visibility.” Francois Boucher-Genesse agrees. “The subscription model requires a lot of work that doesn't go into producing actual quality educational content. Going subscription for us would mean getting investor money. Then we would need to work on the architecture for the subscription model, and produce content that can be done quickly but brings limited educational value, like additional hats and practice levels that are quicker to produce.” 

Carefully define words like “paid,” “free,” “sample,” and “demo”  It’s not always easy to spot ethical apps at the point of purchase. Consider “paymium” apps -- that cost $.99 for the initial download, that also have IAP content. “Something that would help us is a better way to provide a demo to parents,” said Francois Boucher-Genesse. “We went freemium (try before you buy) on Google Play, and our ratings went down drastically because several parents thought the app was just "free." If a premium app was showing as it currently is on the App Store alongside a "demo" button to download the limited version, that would make things much clearer and help sustain the premium model.”

Offer curated lists “Apple could provide a permanent categorized list of curated apps, which bundles apps from different developers together,” said Francois Boucher-Genesse. “I could see a parent browsing the category they're interested in (like math) and buying the whole "conceptual math learning" bundle for example, which contains what Apple deems the best apps in that category. This could make it easier on parents, since they can rely on Apple, instead of only relying on brands (Toca Boca, Disney) like they currently do. That could help smaller developers. It would have to be an opt-in option for developers and distributors would have to be even more involved in deciding which apps can make it in the bundle.”

Let you search the “paid” apps “The iOS App Store search filter offers ‘free’ and ‘all prices’, but no ‘paid.’ Why not? asked one publisher. “Also ‘free’ isn’t free anymore. That’s why they changed the button from ‘free’[ to ‘get.’ So why is free still a search term? In addition, if you search kids, it should only return results of apps that have been included in the made for families age rating thing. I searched the other day for kids, got some gun game for adults.”

Make it possible for people to “follow” developers
“Our customers should be able to be notified automatically of new releases. Imagine if the App Store was like Apple Music. You spend all this time and money building up your brand, if people don't follow you outside of their device, it would be great if you could follow developers like you can with music artists,” said Chris O’ Shea. Francois Boucher-Genesse agrees. “It is a big problem that I can't at the moment reach my own customers to tell them I've got a new app. I have to buy search ads to target people that bought my first app, and then tell them the new app exists. A "subscribe" similar to YouTube would help tremendously, if Apple wants to keep customers emails private.” 

In conclusion
Paying for the development of ethical apps requires enough sales to pay the bills. Making an ethical children’s app is a worthwhile activity, and app stores need to do their part.

It’s now been eight years since the iPad’s birthday. We have an amazingly powerful device that has so much potential for the benefit of children. Android/Chrome and Amazon devices have also dropped in price and increased in power.

So we have the hardware we’ve always dreamed of. But hardware is only as good as the software. Lets work to figure out ways to get quality content to every child.

Content for this article was drawn from comments from children’s app publishers on the “Developers Exchange” Facebook page. We know that this is the start of a conversation; and that there’s plenty of work to be done. Special thanks to Kristin Heitmann; Pierre Abel, Tomas Zeman, Valérie Gangnat Touze, Nancy MacIntyre; Francois Boucher-Genesse, Mindy Douglass and Patrick Larson.


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