Where is Google for Kids?
Let’s face it, Google’s real business rival is Apple — Apple’s app store, Apple’s iAd (why do I have to pay for the ad bandwidth, by the way?), Apple’s controlled computing enviroment. It is interesting to look at one area that Apple has leveraged for decades and wonder why Google isn’t going there.
Where’s Google for Kids?
Seriously, it is a big missed opportunity for Google.
Apple and Schools: Effective Marketing For Years
Apple has aggressively cultivating a school presence forever. I used Apple II’s in high school in the early 80’s. I worked in campus computer labs in college that were full of first-generation Macs. They were really popular because the labs had early LaserWriters. Those early laser printers were my first experience with the combination of WYSIWIG and a laser printer. I suspect I am not alone in that. Certainly, a lot of us did our resumes in MacWrite precisely to leverage the laser printer. Most of my term papers were printed there. Sometimes I think AppleTalk and LaserWriters got Apple a lot further than people think.
I have kids in elementary school now, and the Apple presence is heavy. The teachers use Apple laptops, the computer lab is full of iMac’s, the kids learn to use loads of Apple software. When they think of computer, they think Apple.
Let me be clear, I don’t begrudge Apple any of this; smart marketing with a good product. Kudos.
The upshot of this is predictable: my kids want Macs when they get computers. Not that I am in any danger of buying them Macs, but given the reinforcement they will get as they go through school, I would be surprised if the first computer they buy is not a Mac.
My eldest daughter has a random HP box, bought for her in first grade, which cost around $350 with monitor and is fine for homework, streaming Disney Radio, and other such duties. My younger daughter has a Asus netbook; it is a really nice little computer for the $220 I spent at Costco. Again, for email and homework, and Webkinz World it is fine. And it is a laptop, which fills my elder daughter with envy. Always good fun.
But they both wish for Macs. Because Apple is doing some smart long-term marketing.
Where is Google for Kids?
Google has a enviable brand among consumers, but that brand awareness comes late. Sure kids use Google search, so much so that google is a verb, but search is fungible. My kids have used Bing, Ask, Yahoo, and a plethora of other specialized search engines. Heck, Wikipedia functions as search engine for a lot of people. Like it or not, search is becoming commoditized.
Actually, I try not to have them use Google for search. Safe Search is something, but it is not as all-encompassing as Ask Kids, for example. Google Image search is too easy to stumble into. A cookie is not enough surety that Safe Search is turned on. It is trivial for an inquisitive eight year-old to turn Safe Search off.
So there is no real “Google for Kids” that integrates a configurably-restrictive search for really young ones. I am not going to debate filtering and censorship; I am not talking about teens here. My kids started on the internet when they were three. Some age-based filtering is not so bad as a protective tool for parents. And I am not saying it is Google’s job to make searching safe; but if they know the user is a logged-in seven year-old, well, a little help?
But a child-aimed Google Search is not the real missed opportunity.
Zoobuh For The Win?
My two daughters use Zoobuh for email. They have accounts like firstname.lastname@example.org, but their email gets routed through the family email forwarder, so they have other more useful email addresses. (Plug for JaguarPC, who has hosted my mostly-email needs for a long while with great service.) Zoobuh ofters a wealth of filtering features, letting you control whether user can get attachments, has curse words filtered, etc. I ignore all of that; the world is the world. But it has two salient features which enable me as a parent to let my kids at email:
- I get a copy of every email sent or received
- No email is sent or received unless I approve the recipient or sender.
Boom. Complete parental oversight. By white-listing my kids’ communication, I get confidence they won’t get blindsided by some really inappropriate content. By getting a copy of all their emails, I can make sure they don’t get themselves into too much trouble with there friends. Simple.
Yes, I know they will be able to leap past this as they learn about other email providers, etc. Smart kids will get out. That is fine — hopefully by that point they will be equipped to come to my wife and I with questions when the world surprises them.
But for right now, for ages four to maybe thirteen, this is a tool I need. And in talking to other parents, they would love it as well. Heck, I’ve steered a bunch of people to Zoobuh; $12/year per email address for a service like this is awesome!
But it is just email, the storage size is not huge, and the interface is just OK. But if they had Gmail accounts, they would probably have email accounts they would use for decades to come. They’d be Google customers for life. As Google expands beyond search (advertising), well, this seems useful.
Social Google for Kids
Gmail. Google Talk. Google Reader. Google Wave. These are the Google platforms I would loosely term social. This is where Google should be making a play to capture kids’ hearts and minds.
All of these platforms could be given parental guidance using the same white-listing approach outlines above. I’d love for my kids to sign up for a Gmail address, and let me (for now) oversee access. I’d love to let her chat via Google Talk with her friends — as long as I got a dump of the conversation daily, and knew who she was chatting with. Google Wave is a bit of a reach, but surely it would be useful for group projects in school? And Google Reader would be a great way for my kids to be exposed to content, as long as I could monitor what feeds they subscribed to.
It would require creating an account linked to a parent account, and then being able to cast off that parent account at some point. It would require some behind-the-screens filtering, with approval logic for email addresses and feeds. It would require some work, yes, but there is nothing technically hard about this on the face of it. The details would be substantial, but getting kids to use Gmail from age five would get them exposed to the Google brand very early on. And the network effect of wanting their friends to use Google so they could chat with them on Google Talk would be interesting to observe.
And once Google starts down this path who knows where it can end? YouTube? YouTube terrifies me as a parent, because on the one hand they can watch uploaded video of their lacrosse game, but one search away is pointers on blow jobs. You have to think Google could help here. Microblogging? Could the same framework be used in a deal with Twitter to pare down the twitterverse? Or some microblogging platform of Google’s, aimed specifically at kids?
What about corporate accounts with oversight. I’d hate it, but someone would pay for it. (Google Apps for Business may do this already?)
Speaking of which, I’d happily pay a bit for Google for Kids.
Finally, I would love to see something like Google Wave used to crowd-source content rating in terms of what is appropriate for an age group. So when I pondered and email address or an RSS feed, I could see some recommendations. It would take years of data mining to make really useful, but Google needs to think in terms of years anyway.
Google for Kids. Where is it?
(Please refrain from parenting commentary. I raise my kids, not yours. The above proposals are tools, not a substitue for parenting. Thank you.)