Monday, April 26, 2010

Desperately Seeking a Child-Friendly e-Reader!

E-Book manufacturers are not thinking about kids when they design their devices. This is a shame, because it's a huge untapped market.

The price point of the most popular e-reader devices isn't much more than what personal gaming devices like this Nintendo DSi sell for.  This one is selling for $169 at Best Buy right now, but I know I paid closer to $200 for it when it first came out.  The DSi has internet capabilities that I don't want my six-year-old to use, but I was able to lock down everything I needed to with built in parental controls during the initial setup. My sons, their cousins, and most of their friends already own these gaming devices, so it's not as though parents would balk at the price point for e-readers. The Nintendo DSi is a lifesaver for parents when traveling with kids (long flights, unexpected delays in boring airport terminals, long car trips) or when you have to drag them around shopping, for instance, but parents feel guilty about "plugging the kids in" to video games for hours on end.  Look at the success of Baby Einstein videos, Leap Pad/Leapster, and PC games that help kids learn math facts, phonics, etc.  To me, e-readers are a logical next step for kids. 

The e-Books for kids market is an untapped goldmine. My own sons' voracious reading habits may not be the norm (they are six and nine years old, they spend at least three hours reading every single day, and I've found them hiding in their closets reading books in the middle of the night more times than I can count).  But for parents who are struggling to get their kids to read at all, an e-reader device could help make reading more appealing to tech-savvy kids who would rather be playing video games.  There's definitely a "cool" factor.  Electronic books appeal to me because my sons' bedroom walls are lined with bookshelves and still I'm running out of storage for all their paperback and hardcover books.  I also like the "instant gratification" factor of being able to download the next book in the series as soon as they finish the last chapter of the previous book instead of having to run out to the bookstore or order it online and wait for it to be delivered.  I like that the e-Books would take up so much less space when we're traveling instead of cramming 3-4 traditional books per child into the suitcases so they don't run out of things to read while we're away.  And unlike with the Nintendos, I don't feel like I would have to limit the amount of time my sons were using an e-Book device, other than taking it away at bed time. 

So, if I'm so pumped up about e-readers for kids, why don't my sons have them yet?  The problem is that none of the devices currently on the market, at least the ones I'm aware of, are designed with

children in mind, and each one has at least one feature that makes it inappropriate for kids.  For example, I actually purchased one of Amazon's kindle devices for about $250 last summer and played with it for a few days before returning it.  My sons were fascinated by the kindle, and when I downloaded a Magic Treehouse book for them in the airport, their eyes lit up like it was Christmas morning.  We also loved the kindle's built-in dictionary.  Since kids are still building their vocabularies, they often come across unfamiliar words, but it's a drag to interrupt reading a good story to go find a dictionary.  With the kindle, they just highlight the word they don't know in the text and they can instantly get a definition at the bottom of the screen.  I LOVE this feature for kids!  But here's what I didn't love about the kindle:

  • You can't share books between kindle devices.  Right now, as soon as one boy finishes a book his brother starts reading it.  I want each boy to have his own kindle so they can read at the same time, but I don't want to have to pay twice for each book, especially since the e-books don't cost much less than the traditional print versions of the books.  UPDATE November 23, 2010: Someone just posted a comment informing me that you CAN share content between multiple kindle devices, as long as the devices are all registered to the same user account.  This is true; however, Amazon says "Our Whispersync technology synchronizes your Kindle library and last page read across your devices, so you can read a few pages on your phone or computer and pick up right where you left off when you return to your Kindle."  This is a helpful feature if one person is doing all the reading on all of these different devices, but it would make it difficult for two boys to keep track of where they were in the book if they lose their place every time their brother opened the book on his device.  Also, I wouldn't want all the books from MY kindle to show up in the kids' kindle libraries, so I'd need to set up separate accounts for them, anyway.  Amazon's web site states that they are working on introducing a book lending feature sometime this year.

  • Although we liked being able to access Amazon's kindle store to purchase and download books directly from the kindle device, I didn't like that there isn't any kind of parental control feature on the kindle.  Once the kindle was linked to my Amazon account, the kids could engage in a downloading free-for-all, all unbeknownst to me, and all instantly charged to my American Express account via my Amazon account.  Eek!  And it's not just the spectre of terrifying AmEx bills that worries me -- without supervision, kids could easily download inappropriate content by accident, like if they are looking for kids' books about Batman but they accidentally download a really violent graphic novel for adults instead.  All Amazon would have to do to make the kindle child-friendly would be to add a password feature to purchase from the kindle store on the device.  This would be useful to adult users as well, since my understanding is that, right now if a kindle is lost or stolen, a thief could download books to the stolen device and it would all be charged to the owner's account.
So a few months ago I heard that Barnes & Noble was coming out with an e-reader of their own that would allow sharing e-books with friends and family with the LendMe feature, and I raced over to my local bookstore to check it out.  The nook is priced the same as the kindle at $250, and I love the aesthetics of the color touch screen on the B&N nook that lets the user view all the book jackets in full color.   Like the kindle, the nook also has a built-in dictionary, and the nook has fun, bright colored protective jackets available as accessories in my sons' favorite colors (orange for Lars, green for Anders).  Another neat nook feature is built in chess and sudoku games (both are way more educational than the Pokemon and Lego Batman games they like to play on Nintendo DSi) and, like the kindle, the nook has wi-fi capability so you can download books directly to the device.  Unfortunately, just like the kindle, once you enter your credit card information on the nook to download a book, the nook stores your info with no password protection.  Why is it so hard for these e-Reader manufacturers to incorporate this feature?!  So we had to pass on the nook.
I don't have any direct experience with Sony's e-readers, although they are apparently a leader in this market, but I have looked at them online.  Sony Digital eBook Readers come in a few different models ranging in price from $200-350, and the one that looked most promising for kids was their Pocket Edition for $200.  The price is nice, and the Sony Reader wouldn't allow my kids to download books directly to the device on their own -- but it won't let ME download books directly to the device, either!  The Pocket Edition Sony Reader doesn't have the cool dictionary feature, either (you have to shell out $300 for the Touch Edition to get the dictionary), but the biggest drawback is that you have to load new books onto it from a PC similar to the way you load music files onto an MP3 player.  There's no downloading a new book on a whim while you're out and about with the Sony Readers.  I have also read in other people's reviews that there are fewer e-books available for the Sony Readers, and as long as there is no standard e-book format that works on all devices, this is an important consideration.  The Sony Readers also get bad reviews for screen glare; one reviewer complained that the glare on her Reader device is so bad that she could "use it to apply makeup."  The Amazon kindle and the B&N nook that I played with myself both seemed like they would be pretty easy on the eyes, even after hours of reading.
Last but not least, there's a lot of buzz right now about Apple's foray into the e-reader market with their new iPad, shown at left.  The iPad is a snazzy little device with a beautiful, crisp display, but the $500 the price point is too high to be kid-friendly. The iPad has way too many features for my kids anyway, and with its built-in web browser and email capabilities it's even worse than the kindle or nook from a parental control perspective.  I don't want them browsing the internet, emailing anyone, downloading a bunch of extra apps or watching YouTube videos unsupervised!  Too bad, because I love that beautiful, full-color backlit screen.
Meanwhile, although a lot of adult readers dislike e-readers just for being different from what they're used to (I hear a lot of people complain that they prefer the smell of paper books, the feel of them, etc.), kids love anything electronic and don't share the prejudices against e-Books that many adults have.  Kids grasp new technology almost intuitively, and I believe the e-book technology is something they will need to be comfortable using in the future.  Princeton University already conducted a trial of the kindle devices for Amazon, and although most of the students using them complained about them (they didn't like the difficulty of annotating and highlighting on the kindles, and preferred making paper photocopies of physical books that they could highlight and annotate the old-fashioned way), what was most interesting to me was the environmental reasoning behind Princeton's interest in e-readers to begin with.  Princeton found a 50% reduction in the amount of paper used to print course readings during the trial, and paper reduction alone is enough reason to expect e-readers to become more mainstream over the next few decades.  By the time my kids reach college, I'm sure the glitches with annotation and highlighting will have been worked out, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if they are able to download all of their textbooks and supplemental reading for an entire semester onto one lightweight e-reader device.  You can read more about the Princeton kindle trial here
Meanwhile, I'm still waiting for a child-friendly e-reader device for my sons. 
Update: I just came across a great wish-list of 10 Ideas eReader Companies Ought to Consider  on iReader Review blog.  Along with the parental controls I'm looking for, this blogger has great ideas about additional hypothetical features that would track kids' progress toward reading goals, whether time spent reading or word count.  Although iReader Review's raison d’ĂȘtre is to support kindle users, I found his kindle vs. nook review and kindle vs. iPad reviews to be both thorough and fair.

Update, December 2011: We ended up buying Amazon Kindles for our boys about six months ago, and you can read about how they're working out for us here

Update, October 2012: Our Amazon Kindle Keyboards were recently automatically updated wirelessly, and the new update FINALLY give me the parental controls I've been looking for!  I'm now able to restrict access to the experimental web browser AND the kindle store.  Yippee! 


Anonymous said...

I came across your blog looking for a child-friendly e-reader. My disgust is with the web browser. I have a beautiful, mostly innocent 10 yo dd - and I want her to stay that way! I called both B&N and Amazon to find out how to parentally control the devices, and was told they wouldn't download or be able to see any questionable content. Well, grab a nook, search SEX and pick the first link that pops up - I was pretty disgusted. It looks like B&N and Amazon will be loosing this sale. It's going to Sony.

Rebecca Grace said...

Anonymous: Thanks for visiting my blog and for taking the time to comment. Please stop back again and let me know how you like the Sony Reader for your daughter once she's had it for awhile. The big bummer for me with the Sony Reader is that, from what I understand, you can't download books directly to the device. I'm thinking about those 11-hour drives to visit our in-laws in Florida, and how nice it would be if my son finished a book, handed the e-reader up to me in the front (passenger!) seat, and I could download the next book in the series for him right there in the car so he can keep reading. I could do that with a Kindle, but then my son could be looking at all kinds of internet garbage in the backseat while I think he's reading! But with the Sony Reader, I don't want to have to wait until we get to the hotel, pay some exorbitant hotel fee for internet access, plug in my laptop, download the book to the laptop, then download the book from the laptop to the Sony Reader... For all that hassle, I could have made a detour to the nearest Barnes & Noble and bought the paperback! I don't understand why Nintendo can put parental control capability on the DSi, but Nook and Kindle can't put a parental password control on their e-readers so that parents can download new content directly to the device, but kids can't get to the internet on their own. Anyways, I'd love to hear about how the Sony Reader works out for you.

Fred and/or Marlies said...

It's not really THAT complicated to download a book on any WiFi network. Stop in a McDonalds or almost anywhere to access the internet cloud, download, check your mail and off you go. Exorbitant prices for internet access are pretty much a myth.

Also, when is the deadline for making the internet acessible? The more you forbid, the more enticing you make it.

Rebecca Grace said...

1. I've only been to a McDonald's once in the last 15 years, and that was because I had to pee and the gas station looked really nasty. And when I was in Atlanta last week for a trade show, my hotel was going to charge me $9.95 per day for internet access, and didn't even have free access in the lobby. That makes downloading a book from a hotel room more expensive than paying to have the paperback book shipped to you from Amazon.
2. What are you downloading the books TO? If you already have your laptop with you for checking your mail, etc., it's not a big deal, but I want to download the books directly to an e-Reader device with no PC or laptop in between, so I can do it in the car or in a restaurant or in a fitting room at the mall if desperation drives me to the insanity of bringing the boys with me when I have to shop for clothes... I want to be able to download new content to the e-Reader with no laptop required. The Nook and Kindle will both allow me to do this, but they also have wide-open web access on the e-reader device itself and won't allow me to password protect my credit card info once I've purchased content on the device.
3. Your grandson googled "butts" the other day, because apparently butt humor is all the rage in third grade. All he got was a cartoon picture of a fat lady trying on jeans and asking her husband if they made her butt look big -- because Bernie has some kind of Cybernanny software installed on Lars's laptop so he can roam the internet without accidentally stumbling upon anything really nasty. As far as I know, I wouldn't have those kinds of safeguards available to protect them if they were surfing the internet on an e-Reader device instead of a laptop. But more importantly, I don't want web access on the e-Reader because I want them to use the device for reading, which they can do for as many hours as their little hearts desire, not surfing the web and playing games at the Pokemon web site, which I do allow, but put time limits on.

Ava Kuris said...

The V Tech ereader is now available at and there is no internet access.

There will be several available just before Christmas.

Hope this helps :)

Rebecca Grace said...

Thanks, Ava! I followed your link and read the article. This e-reader seems to be targeted towards kids who are younger and/or beginning readers, so it's not going to be a good fit for my sons. I really need an e-reader just like the nook or Kindle or iPad, that they can read Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter books or other 5th grade and up novels on, but just with a password for purchasing or accessing the internet. So my quest continues... The V Tech e-Reader looks good for preschool to early elementary, and it's a step in the right direction, but the hole in the market that still isn't filled is those middle school to young teen readers. Thanks for sharing this with me, though -- I'm sure the V Tech eReader will be a big hit this holiday season with little readers!

Unknown said...

This blog entry is awesome. Thanks. I'm a dad of an 8-year old with similar concerns about going online unsupervised. It's just too easy too find inappropriate content accidentally. So ideally, the reader would have password access or something so he can only go on when he's with one of us.

Any idea if the new Nook Color addresses any of this?

Rebecca Grace said...

Squirrelyman: Thanks for visiting my blog and for your kind words. I just called Barnes & Noble Technical Support to ask whether the new Nook Color has password protection or parental control features, waited on hold for a few minutes, and then when the guy came back on the line he told me that the Nook Color does NOT have that capability at this time. He suggested that we parents email Barnes & Noble Customer Service to suggest adding these kid-friendly features to future versions. Eventually one of these eReader companies is going to come out with a device that's child-friendly, and all their competitors will be smacking their foreheads, saying "Why didn't WE think of that?!"

Unknown said...

Rebecca: Thanks for doing that, and I greatly enjoyed the new post. I have emailed B&N and I'll let you know what, if anything, I get back from them.

Anonymous said...

You can surely share books on kindle. Just need to register all kindles to one user!

Rebecca Grace said...

Anonymous -- DUH! That makes perfect sense! I wonder why the Kindle tech support guy didn't tell me that?! He told me I could just have my boys SHARE a single kindle device when I asked about sharing content. Ha, ha-ha, ha-hahahahaha -- obviously Mr. Tech Support does not have kids. ;-)

Okay, so the kindle has moved up a notch in my esteem -- but the lack of parental controls (password protection to surf the web and/or purchase and download new content to the device) is still a deal-breaker for me. If Amazon adds these parental controls to the kindle, they would be acceptable for my kids. Thanks!