Thursday, March 20, 2008

Kid-friendly business models

This morning’s news brought several stories about KidZui, a kid-friendly browser from a San Diego startup. It was written up by Walt Mossberg in the WSJ and my hometown paper talked about how it was formed by an ex-Qualcomm engineer who has won VC funding.

I can’t comment on the product, because it's Windoze-only. However, as one of the target customers I can comment on the business model.

The browser is a piece of software that (AFAIK) seems to have been developed from scratch and not one of the proven open source engines (I can’t tell without the software on my machine or the UserAgent string as a clue). It does appear to provide some additional browser features that make it easier for kids to find information.

The real value is as a service — a whitelist of 500,000 authorized sites, some other filtering controls, and efforts to lock out use of other browsers on the machine. (Mossberg notes that not locking out searches for “Spitzer” could bring up topics you might not want to be seen).

It sounds like a service that would be potentially valuable for our family. Today we use Safari to lock down my daughter’s machine (via a very short whitelist), but that list is a pain to keep current with other legitimate sites. However, we’re too cheap to join KidZui: the price of $5/month or $50/year (discounted from the nominal $10/$100 price) is beyond what we’re willing to spend, when ISP access is only worth about $20-30 a month.

I'm also a little reluctant to go to an entirely new browser. My daughter uses one browser at home and also at school; if she uses a friend’s Windoze machine she’ll come across a third. So having her learn yet another browser is a barrier to adoption.

There are clearly going to be ongoing costs (and value) in maintaining the whitelist. Perhaps the key issue is negotiating site licenses with (notorious poor and cheap) elementary schools to get the brand out there and to seed the market with knowledgeable users.

As for us, our child approaching age 10 may be too old to be a target user. We’re near the end of the “lock our kid out of the Internet” phase and approaching the “use your judgement and talk with us about what you find” phase. But I still wonder who will sign up for the service, absent some clever cross-promotion or co-marketing.

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