I’ve heard grumblings and rumblings that the market for apps (especially those for children) has lost its momentum. Do I think apps are less top-of-mind? I’d say that they were never exactly top-of-mind for the consumer, but yes, I think they are less dominant now. You don’t hear the quip, ‘there’s an app for that’ very often anymore. But have apps for kids, especially educational and reading apps, lost their luster? Absolutely not. Apps are relevant now more than ever, especially in the educational sector.
The first time I read a book app with my child was the week the iPad was released, and it felt revolutionary. My son was a toddler at the time. His eyes twinkled at the animations, he responded with expressive language (and laughter) at the interactivity and we could even cuddle up with the just-the-right-size device at bedtime. I had the option to read aloud myself or have a book read to him independently. It was divine. And it wasn’t just the books I found enchanting. We could learn together with this digital tool … discovering the alphabet, numbers, shapes and colors.
Not long after, I began a storybook-focused review site, Digital-Storytime.com to share the news of these (mostly) wonderful apps. Since that time in 2010, I have reviewed over 1000 book apps, learning much along the way. In addition to writing this blog, I’ve been invited to write for several publications as well as being interviewed by The Washington Post, San Jose Mercury News, Scholastic Parent & Child and even the BBC. The highlight for me was being asked to help develop trainings for librarians in media literacy with Cen Campbell, inspiring new ‘media mentors’ and building skills to introduce digital storytimes to public libraries within the US.
In that time, I’ve also written a lot of opinion pieces about the app market and marketing apps. I’ve penned posts about what I liked and didn’t like, about how apps were designed and much more. This piece is in that vain, an opinion piece based on my experience in the market over many years.
So what do I think of the kids story app world today? In a nutshell, these are my thoughts …
Market has Matured
Since the launch of touch tablets, we’ve seen enormous growth in the industry of apps and the education sector has been hot on its trail. There are trusted players now. Parents, educators and librarians can now look at specific developers like Toca Boca, Oceanhouse Media, Nosy Crow, ArtGig and many others with confidence that they’ll find a quality experience for little ones. Educational consultants, speech & occupational therapists and developmental experts have begun to weigh in more often before apps come to market, making the products much more palatable to schools in particular. And there are even thoughtful sources to consult for storybook apps specifically, including CYBILS & the Bologna Razzi Award as well as nods from Children’s Technology Review and Common Sense Media.
Kids are Storytellers
A seismic shift has happened in how apps are used, however. More apps & education technology (edtech) are moving toward maker spaces and creating space for youth-led storytelling experiences rather than telling stories without interactive elements. These range from complete storyboards to guided storytelling. This trend is part of the maker culture that emphasizes creation over being passive recipients of new technology. Examples include Drawp, Put Me In the Story apps, OnceAppOn, Shadow Puppet, Toontastic and more!
Fertile Ground Still Exists
New developers are finding a very different market in 2016 than they did in 2010 when the iPad was first released. At that time there was a lot of opportunity but nearly no guidance. Now there is more limited opportunity but a lot of guidance. The fertile ground that remains is still welcoming to startups, especially those who have enthusiasm for their projects alongside strong research. “Doing your homework” has never been so important but once that background work is done, startups can fill needs in edtech that are still unserved. This is really true for specific apps for education, focusing on common core and non-fiction especially. Other areas that continue to expand include apps for middle & high school. Any apps that inspire youth creativity, storytelling and choose-your-own adventure interactivity also do well. Ultimately we’ve moved away from the ABC & 123 apps from the early days, leaving only the bravest and most talented to tackle ECE (Early Childhood Education). A few ECE categories are still needed for more specific populations (including growth that continues for special needs apps). But take note, the app market is otherwise saturated with ECE content for even the savviest consumer. Developers staking a claim for under 5’s have already planted a lot of flags and it is difficult for anyone new to make a living exclusively on the preschool market.
More Hybrid Apps
One of the most interesting changes in the app market is the blurring of lines between categories that were more clear in print. Interactive apps were often compared to pop-up books, but there are no real analogies for the apps that have come to market as the appstore matures. Many apps for kids include books, games and more, like tools for storytelling or choose-your-own-adventure style tales. Especially exciting are new apps that make children storytellers not just a passive audience. Apps like Chomp, Wuwu & Co., SPOT and others represent this new trend.
The Best of the Best is Still Extraordinary
In my curation and reviewing process I see a lot of new apps. The sheer number of requests for review have stayed steady, but fewer and fewer are truly book apps or for kids. I get more requests for games and utility apps than ever before, despite having clear guidelines about what we cover at Digital-Storytime.com. As I scour new releases each week, though, I’ve found that the most ground-breaking and innovative apps for children are still as exceptional as ever. There is also more attention for diverse characters, thanks to movements like #WeNeedDiverseBooks. There is also a deeper focus on more complex non-fiction topics as well as more apps for older readers. These areas are still ripe for expansion, especially for high-quality development.
EdTech is Growing & Educational Guidance is Maturing
Since 2010 when the iPad was launched, use of tablets in particular in education has increased dramatically. Edtech has reached into nearly every level of education, especially with common core’s emphasis on digital technology. But apps are just a small slice of the cutting-edge pie when it comes to technology in education today. Most educators, administrators and schools are looking far and wide at technological options, choosing the best product for the situation. This means technology is increasingly seen within education as a tool NOT tech for tech’s sake. This is exciting for the education sector but still a challenge for software developers who have to translate their innovative products across multiple formats in order to meet consumer needs. This can contribute to barriers for entry when new startups form. It’s possible to be available for only one format, but difficult to make a living.
Prices Stable but Still Low per Unit
One of the biggest sticking points for apps that concerns developers is the basic math that goes into pricing. The assumption has often been that creating a digital product should be less expensive or at least infinitely scalable. The costs associated with development have proven to be no less than any other educational software project, if not more (especially for multiple formats). And scalability is beyond a challenge. The number of developers who can get an app to sell virally is very low and almost unheard of in the education sector. This means there are no ‘overnight’ successes in this industry (if there ever were). It also means prices are thankfully stable, after many years of having a market too young to predict. At the very least, the price per unit sold and cost of development are relatively predictable now. The real question is how to market the app for the most sales, with realistic goals based on previous market performance of similar apps.
Lifespan of Apps & Digital Products an Issue
AppRot was the name giving to apps that are removed from the market or those that break down after updates to the tablet software. These abandoned apps often disappear from the market with little fanfare, simply because the app wasn’t worth downloading, let alone supporting over time. However, as time has gone on, many great apps have also experienced approt, leaving consumers with no product in just a few years or even months after purchase. This impact is subtle, but ultimately erodes consumer confidence in their purchases specifically and the market generally.
Deeper Use of Apps In Education
Use of apps is more integrated into curriculum and common core goals now as edtech evolves. This means a deeper use of fewer apps by teachers in particular. Does this mean we need fewer apps overall? Probably yes, but we need a lot of experimentation still to find the best tools to give educators. This also means that the education sector needs apps with deeper content, too. This challenges the industry to get beyond 123 & ABC, which seem to still be the most prevalent apps in the iTunes store. Apps for older students may have a limited audience, but this sector is still overwhelming underserved in the app world. Luckily more app developers are also paying attention to this trend. I hear often now about educational consultants working on app development teams. This is something that rarely happened in the early days of the app ‘wild west’.
These are just my observations from the past years I’ve watched this market, but I can say without hesitation that it has matured. It certainly HAS NOT lost its luster, however. What I see is greater sophistication by developers, marketers and consumers, especially in the education sector. What do you see from your vantage point?