The make-believe notebook PC

Some friends of ours recently said that their toddler recently asked for a toy vacuum cleaner, so that he could vacuum the floor “just like Dad does.” This said something about the changes in traditional divisions of labour in some households, but it also demonstrated how quickly a tool can turn into a toy. The personal computer industry is no different.

This past weekend, for example, my wife and I attended the annual BabyTime conference at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. It was mostly a shopping expedition, though they did offer some classes on infant massage and how to give CPR to someone under the age of one. There was one moment, however, when I passed by a booth that made me wonder if I’d accidentally stepped into a time warp and returned to the days of Comdex in Las Vegas.

I found myself looking at a selection of electronic devices that weren’t quite full-fledged PCs, but looked awfully close. Manufactured by a firm called VTech, I was particularly impressed by something called the Nitro, which looked like a junior version of a laptop offered by Dell or HP.

According to a Toys R Us catalogue page, the Nitro is the ultimate product for a high-tech learner. Kids love having their own computer with an endless selection of fun games and activities that help them master reading in two languages. The computer reads aloud stories to teach phonics and improve fluency,” it says. “Developing readers learn at their own speed as Artificial Intelligence technology tracks their performance and adjusts the skill levels as needed. All children know is that they are mastering reading…and having fun.”

The user reviews were, well, mixed. “We bought this for our 5 year old son for Christmas. He wanted one SO BAD! After playing with it for a few minutes he seemed bored,” one commented. “He wanted to be able to type and write letters. There are games galore. The graphics are only so-so. Disappointed that when you turn it on it’s default game is in Spanish. Overall I still think it’s a great educational toy – if I can get him to play with it.” Now there’s a challenge IT managers know well.

What’s interesting to me is how form factors are used to influence and encourage attitudes towards various kinds of tasks. We create these toys, obviously, because we want to respond to the childhood urge to mimic adult behaviour, but there’s some self-interest involved too. The box of the Vtech toy I studied at the BabyTime event mentioned how the toy would be a good preparation for school, which I rather doubted.

In another 10 years, I can’t imagine a make-believe notebook is going to have much demand. More likely we’ll see make-believe iPhone clones, or some kind of hybrid computing device that doesn’t exist yet. I don’t know if it will make for better students – or better IT-empowered employees – but it might be worth paying attention to how toddlers engage with these kind of products. Grown-up IT is no game, but as users struggle to make the most of the computing devices offered them, IT managers need to figure out how to do a better job of playing along.

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