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’être 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!