For a company that’s more commonly compared to Mattel than it is to Apple, this is a bold move into the crowded consumer electronics space. After all, parents can already download games for kids on their iPads or pop a kids game into their family’s Nintendo Wii. But according to LeapFrog CEO John Barbour, these are provisional options that don’t truly create an educational or age-appropriate experience for the little ones. What’s more, he says, such games have been getting the big tech companies in trouble. Amazon is now facing an FCC lawsuit for failing to prevent kids from making unauthorized in-app purchases, and Apple recently went through a similar battle.
LeapFrog, by contrast, has two decades of experience making educational products for kids. That, says Barbour, is a priceless advantage. “There are people out there in the broader entertainment space, but I don’t believe there’s anyone out there that does what we do,” he says.
For a company that’s more commonly compared to Mattel than it is to Apple, this is a bold move into the crowded consumer electronics space.
Barbour came out of retirement in 2011 to lead LeapFrog, after serving as president of Toys “R” Us from 2004 to 2006. After joining LeapFrog, he says, it was immediately apparent to him that the company—and in fact most other companies—were missing out on a big opportunity to create devices, not just toys, for kids. “I loved the brand, but I felt it was far too focused on the toy business,” he says. “Kids are growing out of toys at a younger age.”
Barbour and his team decided that they would have to build these devices as much for the parents as they did for the kids. Most educational games today, he says, are either so educational that kids don’t find them fun, or so focused on fun that they offer only the slightest educational value. “We tried to marry both things,” Barbour says.
Meanwhile, LeapFrog also wanted to address the stigma that games rot kids’ brains and keep them inactive. So, with the LeapBand, the company jumped on the activity tracking craze, developing a device that would not just maniacally track children’s steps, but comes loaded with games to get kids moving. LeapFrog also completely redesigned the controller for the LeapTV, specially for tiny hands, and has locked its tablets so that they have restricted access to the internet. Barbour says there are dozens more technologies, traditionally designed for adults, that LeapFrog wants to adapt for kids in the future.
Of course, he’s not the only one. The Nabi tablet, made by a startup called Fuhu, is also a leader in the kids tablet category. Even Samsung makes a Galaxy Tab for kids. And yet, Barbour insists he’s not competing on hardware alone. What really matters is the quality of the games themselves. “The tablet is the purchase, but what really chances the child’s life is the content they play on it,” he says. “If you want to buy another app and keep your kids out of your hair for 30 minutes, it’s no different than sitting your kid in front of some mindless cartoon. That’s not what we do.
By Issie Lapowsky