My parents bought my toddler a kid’s tablet as a Hanukkah gift. I had been checking out the VTech Innotab and Leap Frog Leapster tabs as options for him. They bought him the Innotab, with an accompanying, rugged digital camera built for kids. The Innotab is a tough little device, with rubber bumpers all around. It has a resistive touchscreen and a stylus that slots into the back. It comes with some basic programs, and you can download more apps from the company website. It’s almost easy enough, but having used it for a few months with my son, I’ve come to realize a fascinating change in the state of technology. The more you pay for a product, the simpler it becomes.
It’s easy to see the appeal of a kid’s tablet. I take my son to pick out a toy and, at 3 years old, he’s horrible at making decisions he’ll be happy with long term. It’s much better if I pick something out. Otherwise, he’ll pick out another toy car, or another LEGO set. Neither of those are bad, but he’s more likely to pick toys similar to what he already has at home. He’s in the mood to play, and his imagination ventures to the familiar. So we end up with another dump truck, or a train of a different color.
Enter the tablet. I see a size that’s small enough to fit his hands. I see educational apps and reading, in addition to games and coloring programs. It’s colorful and not too expensive. But every time I tried to pick one up in his presence, he refused it, opting instead for something more plain and repetitive.
Here’s my whopper of disclaimers. In my day job, I work for Samsung. We make Android tablets. I have a stack of them at my desk, and another stack on my shelves at home. Android is a great OS, but it’s a bit complicated for a toddler. So, I use the Galaxy Tab, and my son uses my hand-me-down iPad, a leftover from the days before I joined my current company. Yup, my 3 year old already has a 1st generation iPad that is loaded with only apps and videos that are appropriate for his age. He doesn’t use the iPad often. In fact, I usually leave it locked in the glove box of my car. A tablet is the perfect road companion for a kid.
So, between his lack of interest in the kid’s tablet, and his current iPad, I wasn’t going to spring for the Leapster, but then my parents show up for the holidays with a new Innotab. They wanted the Leapster, but it was sold out.
The Innotab is a remarkably complicated product, and not really appropriate for my son’s age. The first thing you have to do when you turn it on is pick your name from a list. Mind you, he’s the only person who uses the tablet, so the list is his name and “Guest.” Why is this account logon process so important on a toddler’s tablet? I have no idea.
He’s lost the stylus already, even though it slots in the back. I can’t find it anywhere. He might have stuck it in a pocket and dropped it at the zoo, for all I know. But he can still draw with his fingers. He understands how to pick his favorite color and change brushes. He can even erase everything and start with a fresh, clean page. But when he tries to start over, he gets a message asking if he’s sure he wants to delete his work without saving. He’s 3. What is he possibly going to create that will be so worthwhile he needs to save it every time? I’m sure the feature is nice to have for some people, but I have to clear this message every time it pops up, since he can’t yet read.
I could go on and on. When they originally bought the tablet, my parents were frantic about having me download new apps for it. They didn’t understand that it came with a fine variety. They didn’t understand how to plug in a mini-USB cord, or where the SD card goes. No memory included, of course, which they also didn’t realize. Once we figured out how to sync with their computer (requiring a system update to run the tablet software), we had trouble navigating the app store online.
In other words, it was all a terribly complicated process. But this isn’t what my parents expected. After all, this is a simple, $100 tablet. An iPad costs $400 or more for a current model. Even a Kindle Fire is twice as expensive.
There was a time when you paid $100 for something, like a stereo or a television set, what you got was a simple device with fewer features. That’s probably still the case for home theater. You get fewer ports, fewer buttons and nobs, fewer information flashing on the tiny LED screen. Pay less for a Walkman, and you lack recording capabilities, Dolby Noise Reduction, and a waterproof shell. Pay less for an action figure and you get fewer points of articulation, fewer lights and sounds. Literally, fewer bells and whistles.
But with more complicated technology like a tablet computer, you need to pay more to get less. Rather, you need to pay more to get something much simpler. My parents knew that I had given my son a tablet already. I’m sure they thought to themselves: he can’t use that iPad, it’s too complicated. We’ll get him something from a toy store; something for his age group.
The last time she came to visit, I gave my mother another one of my hand-me-down tablets. It was for her to use. She was intimidated at first, but then she sat down with my toddler and he showed her the ropes. He taught her how to unlock the screen and open her favorite app. He taught her the pinch-to-zoom gesture in the photo gallery, and how to swipe from one homescreen to the next. He still uses the big LEGO bricks, and he’s a few years from coloring within the lines. But put a 7.7-inch tablet in his hands, and he’s already generations ahead.