Have you ever seen a 4-year-old play with an iPhone? It's actually kind of shocking. Kids take to the iPhone's multitouch user interface like they do trucks or dolls. They instinctively know that the iPhone is a toy, and they nag, cajole and harass their parents into letting them play with it.
Every time I spend time with any of my nephews or nieces, they never fail to ask me if they can borrow my iPhone. When I cave and hand it over, they immediately know what to do, and have an encyclopedic knowledge of which iPhone apps they want to play with.
YouTube hosts a huge number of videos of very young kids playing with iPhones -- even 1-year-olds.
You don't see anything like this with other phones. The iPhone user interface is so easy, appealing and intuitive that children naturally and immediately "get it." And they don't care about the iPhone's flaws, such as lack of tethering, lack of multitasking or lack of a physical keyboard. Children are hardwired for touch interfaces, and they love iPhones.
The role of the iPhone in the lives of children is, in my opinion, an underappreciated cultural phenomenon.
While nobody was looking, the iPhone became a universally understood part of children's culture. And hundreds of companies have responded by creating child-specific apps, which makes the device even more compelling to kids.
Another trend I've noticed is that when adults upgrade to new phones, they're increasingly handing their old iPhones to their children -- after loading them up with kids apps and canceling their wireless plans. The kids love owning their own iPhone, and the parents love not constantly handing their new phone over to the kids to play with. Everybody wins.
Here comes the iPad
I'm having two different conversations with my Buzz community about the iPad, and they have been very illuminating. One of the threads is about the iPad itself and whether it's a desirable device. Posters are divided between the enthusiasts, who can't wait to get their hands on one, and the anti-iPad crowd, who feel the gadget is an overhyped, underpowered, limited-use fad.
In the other thread, we're talking about the iPad as a children's device. And that group is divided as well, with roughly half believing the iPad will sell well in the children's market and the other half disagreeing.
One of the challenges in predicting what will happen with iPad sales is that as of this writing, none of us has really used one yet. And certainly no children beyond the families of some Apple employees have used them.
I believe a great many of today's skeptics will be won over once they've actually tried an iPad.
In the market segment of my Buzz community -- technical adult computer and gadget users -- the iPad will affect us pretty much like we expect it will. Lots of people will have them, and it will be a source of contention between the fans and the skeptics. It's an old story, where gadget freaks argue the merits and shortcomings of this product or that service.
But the reaction among children will be different. I believe that in the under-12 market, the iPad will dominate without any real competition and will completely change children's culture. Here are three reasons why I think that will happen: It's perfect for parents, the "children's culture" industry and kids themselves.
Parents are always looking for electronic babysitters to pacify their kids so they can do something else -- drive, for example, or make dinner.
Naysayers in my Buzz group say parents won't shell out $500 for a children's toy. Here's my response: Wanna bet? An entire industry has sprung up around DVD players in cars that are just for kids. How much do those cost? Besides, an iPad isn't a toy. It's a toy chest full of toys.
An iPad is an ideal kid pacifier. For starters, parent-selected children's apps for the iPad are likely to be more educational than TV. As a replacement or substitute for in-car entertainment for kids, iPads are better because kids can change the app. The parent doesn't have to put everyone's lives at risk trying to swap DVDs.
Parents will believe, and correctly, that using an iPad will better prepare their children for the future than watching TV.
Any parent who owns an iPad will be constantly harassed by the kids, even more so than iPhone-owning parents are today. The path of least resistance for parents will be to just get the kids an iPad of their own. I think parents will do this by the millions.
The children's culture industry
If you look at "children's culture" -- books, DVDs, toys and more -- there is an enormous degree of crossover from one product category to the next. Disney, for example, makes a Little Mermaid movie, then a doll, then a series of books, then a TV series, and so on. Just about every major children's franchise goes totally multimedia. The iPad is yet another media, and one that integrates elements of several others.
One can imagine books that are interactive in multiple ways. They can simultaneously be coloring books, puzzle books, intros to movie scenes, social networks and more. Click here to see a small, early example.
From a business point of view, the iPad represents not only another media to cross-sell into with existing and future brands and characters, but it's one that can be sold into via a subscription model.
Publishers, broadcasters, and other education and entertainment companies that focus on kids will go nuts with iPad apps.
If the iPhone was natural for children, the iPad will be even more natural, simply because it's larger.
I think the iPad will spark a revolution in children's culture. I'm convinced that starting this year, and especially next year, iPads will be the No. 1 most requested holiday and birthday gift by everyone under the age of 18, and especially under the age of 12.
Starting this year, kids will learn to read, write and count on iPads. They'll watch TV, movies and cartoons on iPads. They'll do social networking, play games, and even color in virtual coloring books.
By the time these kids reach middle school, they will have been using multitouch user interfaces almost every day for eight years or more.
The iPad platform will prove irresistible to everyone -- parents, content providers, and especially the kids themselves.
This story, "Why iPad Is the 'Children's Toy of the Year'" was originally published by Computerworld.