The children of today are more tech savvy than ever before. They’ve got games consoles, iPod touches, iPads, digital cameras, and plenty more at their disposal. Like it or not, while traditional wooden toys can still be found in the playroom, today’s kids are more likely to know all about Angry Birds over the rules of Monopoly.
“Children are using more and more new tech,” explains John Barbour. “We are going to keep following that trend.”
John Barbour is the CEO of edutainment (education and entertainment) company LeapFrog. Back out of retirement, the jovial and clearly passionate Scot who’s worked in the toy business most of his career is hoping to take the manufacturer from being just another toy company to a genuine force in technology - at least, where kids are concerned:
"We plan to be a major player on iOS and Android," Barbour tells Pocket-lint when we met up with him in New York for an exclusive one-to-one interview.
If the name LeapFrog sounds familiar its because it’s been embracing technology in toys for the last 15 years. If you’ve got kids, chances are you’ve got a LeapFrog device in your house. Originally coining the term LeapPad in 1999 as an interactive book that talked to you, the company has slowly but surely moved towards a more technological future, culminating in the launch of a tablet for kids that goes the same name – the LeapPad.
However, that's not to say LeapFrog will foresake the iPad or its Android equivalents, it will continue to develop applications for both. It already has several on the App Store, for example, although they do cost more than an entry-level price point.
Apple's system might be awash with 59p apps, but that’s not enough for Barbour who believes that many don’t give you much more beyond a quick fix:
“We just can’t make cheap apps," he says. "The ones you do find just don’t offer the same experience, and most of the time they just aren’t very good. Our goal is to make such a great experience that you are happy to pay for it.”
That might sound like a man merely grabbing for cash, but he has a point. LeapFrog says that the entire curriculum goes into each and every one of its products. It's a philosophy that's certainly inherent in the LeapFrog Tag reader, a pen with a sensor in it that reads the coordinates of elements on a page and sounds out associated actions.
On the surface, the compatible books look like any other that you would find on a child’s bookshelf, but it’s not until you look closely that you see thousands of dots on the pages.
A scanner in the pen recognises those dots and thus reads words aloud, or, if you’re not there, actually reads the whole story.
“Kids don’t have people reading to them these days,” admits Barbour with some sadness. The excitement leaves his face for a moment, as it’s something that clearly frustrates him. “That means there is a big difference between reading and comprehension. Our products aim to create learning experiences that are fun, but that let the kids understand what they are reading. The plan is to make it so the kids don’t realise they are learning. We don’t recreate school on the go.”
That focus on experience is what Barbour believes will be the ultimate success of the company. That’s a strange thing to say on the eve of the launch of a new piece of hardware, but the CEO believes it’s the software that will make parents want to buy it for their kids:
“The iPod is nothing without iTunes," he says. Like Apple, LeapFrog wants the tech specs to take a back seat.
He's obviously in awe of Apple and its App Store, and, like previously stated, he's keen that LeapFrog continues developing for the platform. Indeed, the company plans to double the number of apps it has in the App Store by the end of the year.
And, naturally, it will start to hit Android too.
While Barbour doesn't go into specifics he does talk about creating tablet versions of the software the company already has for PC and Mac users, so they can check on their child’s progress through its Learning Path software.
That software monitors the activity of their child using the company’s products like the Tag Reader, the Leapster Explorer, or the soon to be launched LeapPad, and then lets parents see trouble spots or areas of success.
Other obvious options could include the creation of the LeapPad software for iPad or Android users. The LeapPad has a 5-inch screen and would easily scale up to fit the iPad or a Honeycomb tablet.
That move should help the company allow those kids to transfer from its own tablet to the other tablets on the block as they get older or if an older iPad becomes available after mum or dad has upgraded.
“The iPad isn’t a toy. Most people don’t want to share it.” says Barbour, and he's probably right. Most iPad owners we know with kids are happy for their kids to play Angry Birds to keep them quiet for 10 minutes, but soon tire of not having their coveted device in their own hands.
Many will welcome a situation where you can cross between a LeapPad and iPad and still get the learning path elements that LeapFrog offers as their kids get older.
It’s not all software, software, software though. The LeapPad hasn’t even gone on sale in the UK (August 15), but that doesn’t stop Barbour telling us what’s next, and what’s next after that.
That future is apps, Wi-Fi, greater connectivity with the PC, and an easier buying experience.
“We are already working on the next Leapster Explorer, and the next LeapPad,” confesses the CEO before adding: “Learning to read is fundamentally important. We’ve got some great new products coming that will make it even better beyond the Tag Reader products.”
And with that, our interview is over and the CEO bounces off to another meeting to tell them how he, and the company, are going to change how their kids learn in the future.