Oh, the places they’re going: Book apps see changing market

Children's book apps have come a long way since they first trickled onto iTunes in 2009. And now, evolving consumption patterns are pushing developers to take their products to the next level.
September 21, 2015

Like iPads at family restaurants, Dr. Seuss fans are everywhere. So it came as little surprise to Greg Uhler and his colleagues at Oceanhouse Media that Apple’s support crew took a keen interest in his company’s most recent venture—a newly revamped lineup of educational book apps based on popular Seuss titles.

Uhler, who is director of research and development at the California-based mobile maker, has spent the past two years evaluating book-app content and features, and the outcome is The Cat in the Hat—Read & Learn.

The enhanced book app includes Oceanhouse’s signature text-scaffolding features, as well as 31 learning activities designed to help kids ages four to six practice literacy skills such as spelling and rhyming. It’s setting the pace for three more redesigned Seuss titles slated to launch this year: Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss’s ABC and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

As Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ sole mobile licensee, Oceanhouse has churned out more than 40 branded book apps to date, which together have been read more than 100 million times via iOS and Android devices. (Its original The Cat in the Hat app alone comprises 25% of that figure.) The numbers are large, but the kids mobile space has become gargantuan, and idling isn’t an option.

“Today, there is a certain level of depth that apps need to have. The customer base is more mature in what they expect from an app, and with this launch we hope to set a new bar for what kids expect,” says Uhler. “When we first launched apps in 2009, they took advantage of what you could do on an iPhone. The iPad wasn’t even around yet. [It launched in April 2010.] As the devices and operating systems have upgraded, we saw that many book apps had animations, gestures and other features that were engaging to kids. Our offerings started to look a bit dated.”

In modernizing things, Uhler and his team aimed to provide a simple and clear user interface that a child could handle on his or her own, more animation, and a “delight” factor—some element that makes the user laugh or engage. The new app series also has significantly more user-controlled animation—rather than flat artwork—and educational activities embedded into the story.

“Due to competition, it’s much more challenging to launch an app and have it be successful, even with a strong brand in your pocket,” says Uhler, who also develops apps for Little Critter and Berenstain Bears.

“There’s more consolidation, which makes it harder for smaller companies and unbranded material to be financially viable,” he says. “Expectations are higher. ‘How do you justify the development cost?’ The moment you want to make an app [rather than an eBook] and start adding features like narration, word highlighting and animation, the cost goes up.”

Without divulging Oceanhouse’s actual cash outlay, Uhler says it’s difficult to build an engaging book app for less than US$10,000—and some developers are spending upwards of US$250,000.

If there’s any indication of a market shift, perhaps its best embodied in NetKids, New York-based Cupcake Digital’s new subscription-based platform that houses narrated storybooks, along with on-demand videos, gaming apps and music. The iOS product, which debuted in July, is being offered to subscribers in the US and Canada for US$8 per month.

Graham Farrar, whose company zuuka and its iStoryTime library app were acquired by Cupcake Digital in March 2014, says the NetKids subscription model is an answer to controversial in-app purchasing that only gives kids a taste of entertainment (and parents uninvited phone charges).

“We learned from our two-year-old iStoryTime library that subscription is much easier for parents and kids. Ninety-six percent of revenue from the App Store comes from in-app purchases, which is a flaw,” says Farrar, who now leads corporate strategy at Cupcake. “There’s no real way to preview or trial an app. Just picture going into a book store where all the books are sealed in cellophane—there would be a lot fewer books sold.”

“The moment you want to make an app [rather than an eBook]…the cost goes up”

- Greg Uhler, Oceanhouse Media

Kids are now more technologically sophisticated and discerning than the ones Farrar aimed to please in 2010 with his first book app, which was based on DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon. NetKids is relying on the element of choice—picture several hundred premium apps hailing from Cupcake’s and iStoryTime’s library of licensed content—and the lure of familiar TV characters to stand out from the pack. (Television and book content will include titles featuring Peanuts, Sid the Science Kid, Strawberry Shortcake and DreamWorks brands).

“It’s like TV 2.0. You download the app, it’s all ad-free, and kids can watch, play and read offline. It’s a blend of dessert with fruit and veggies,” says Farrar. “Even with the presence of videos in NetKids, we are seeing that kids are selecting the books along with the videos. For young boys like my son, that’s not an ordinary occurrence. The books are narrated, so there’s not that much of a distinction between them [and the videos].”

A NetKids-like subscription model is also on the radar for Barry O’Neill, CEO of Ireland-based digital publisher StoryToys. As the App Store becomes increasingly overcrowded, O’Neill is always looking at ways to stay ahead of the curve. His paid apps for iOS, Google Play and Amazon—both original and licensed—use a 3D pop-up book technology first introduced in an original Rapunzel storybook app in 2010.

“At the time, a Rapunzel storybook app was a novel thing. Now, there are 2,000 to 3,000 versions of Rapunzel apps available,” says O’Neill. “Since then, we have gone deeper on interactive elements. The pop-up effect in our books has been strong, and we’ve integrated a camera that literally lifts kids off the page.”

The narrative element of his pop-up book apps (25 titles and counting) speaks to kids ages two to seven, says O’Neill, admitting that once kids get older, they become more interested in games than stories. That said, StoryToys has built up its licensing efforts to engage older kids, and the company recently struck a deal with Saban Brands to bring the Power Rangers into its fold. O’Neill also has more comic book titles on the horizon.

Given recent Ofcom findings that show 70% of five- to 15-year-olds in the UK have access to a tablet, StoryToys creates narratives with devices in the forefront. According to O’Neill, this is what gives book apps a significant edge over traditional eBooks, which have limited interactivity (just sounds and tapping) and are downloaded to a dedicated eReader device.

“eBooks are an electronic manifestation of the text from a physical book, sometimes with minor enhancements. Our book apps—or enhanced eBooks—can feature videos, sorting games and complex audio interactions. From a consumer perspective, it’s more immersive.”

In terms of when kids are immersing themselves in these products, StoryToys metrics offer some telling insights. For example, app usage tends to spike between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. on weekend mornings, indicating that kids are being sent back to bed with their iPads in-hand. As such, the company released Wake Up Mo!, a 3D pop-up book that familiarizes kids with morning routines.

This sort of digital-first mentality to book content is where Oceanhouse’s Uhler thinks the future is headed, as he believes more authors and illustrators will create books with their digital incarnations in mind. “I think more authors will consider apps as they develop new books. For example, an artist illustrating a physical book can work in Photoshop using layers to enable animation, perspective shifts and effects by the app developer,” he says.

And according to Cupcake’s Farrar, opportunities may also be found in synergies between book apps and physical televisions.

“You can put a narrated book with highlighted text on the TV screen, and kids can happily watch like it’s a cartoon. But we all know it’s a book on the big screen,” he says. “Everything evolves, so if we can make that experience, it’s not a bad thing. Plus, it beats watching cartoons that are interspersed with commercials.”

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