“As app developers, we live in a different world from the publishers,” said Valerie Trouze, founder of Edoki Academy, a digital studio based in Paris and London that produces education apps for children based on the Montessori teaching system. “Traditional publishers still have to deal with paper, ink, printing, distribution. When we want to publish, we just push a button. I just can’t get my head around what it is they have to do.”
Trouze was one of a coterie of exhibitors in the new Digital Hall of this year’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair, which was visually dominated by stands from two major platforms – Microsoft Education and Google Play – and featured a score of digital service providers, companies offering software solutions, and independent producers.
The challenges that children’s app developers face these days echo those of traditional publishing, with increasingly narrow distribution channels being clogged by an exponential increase in product, making discovery by consumers more of a challenge. Major change is evident in the last two years, with the decisions by top toy manufacturers and children’s brands to use apps as a cross-platform marketing tool or supplement to existing product.
“Today, if you look at the app stores, the ‘children’s’ channels are often dominated by apps from Lego or Disney, for example,” said Verena Pausder of Berlin digital studio Fox & Sheep, which produced the popular Petting Zoo app created by artist and children’s book illustrator Christoph Niemann. “The result is that we have often seen our apps pushed off the featured app pages in the iOS store, which has made reaching customers increasingly difficult.” Accordingly, said Pausader, her studio’s strategy has been to create one or two big brand licensed apps per year – working with the likes of German toy company Haba, in one example – and cross-promote the company’s own apps through those sales.
What small, independent app-creators may lack in discoverability they can often make up for in quality; often, according to the independents, their apps can be far superior to what are offered by the larger licensed brands. This was born out by this year’s BolognaRagazzi Digital Awards, which were won by “Wuwu” from Denmark’s Step In Books (in the fiction category) and by the math teaching app “Attributes by Math Doodles,” created by Carstens Studios in the U.S., for nonfiction. “These are great examples of what can be done with the technology,” noted Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children’s Technology Review and manager of the awards. “They take the opportunity to make the reading and interactive experience better without distracting from the story, in the case of Wuwu, or the pedagogy, in the case of Attributes. And they do it in a way that is ethical – there is no up-selling to children within the apps, for example.”
Of the more than one million apps available on iOS and Android, some 75,000 to 100,000 are labeled as being for children. “But the bad news is that the app stores are flooded with cheap and mediocre content, or even crap,” said Buckleitner, who also ran the half-day seminar “Dust or Magic,” which discussed best practices for children’s app development.
Jørn Alraun, of Berlin digital studio urbn pockets, agreed that the challenge has become how to acquire and foster an audience for original, high-quality, and typically more expensive apps in the face of increasing competition from companies that might “be quick to put an inferior, free app into the market to cross-promote a toy, product, or movie.” He added, “The curated part of [Apple’s iOS] app store is really great, but the rest, not so much.”
Nearly all the exhibiting app developers acknowledged that Apple’s iOS was, by far, the dominant platform, and their businesses lived and died by their ability to get featured on iTunes, though many expressed the belief that increasing sales of Android devices should expand the traffic to Google Play significantly in coming years.
Elsewhere in Bologna’s Digital Hall, several companies were experimenting with virtual and augmented reality as a means to make their apps more distinctive and interactive. Victoria Productions, exhibiting as part of a Korean collective that brought eight developers to Bologna, offers vocabulary books that, when viewed through the camera on an iPad, have images are rendered in 3D. Mozaik, the largest textbook publisher in Hungary, took 1,000 titles and gave “digital support” to the textbook, offering narrative animations, video, and 3D renderings to readers through embedded links.
“It’s the interplay between technology and art that is unique,” noted Neil Hoskins of Winged Chariot Productions, a consultancy that assisted Bologna with curating the Digital Hall. “What people forget is that in many instances with augmented or virtual reality, you have the physical book that acts as the catalyst for the apps This is good for the ecosystem as, overall, we’ll get more connections between developers and illustrators, matches where the digital side is looking for high-quality art, and the physical side is looking for high-quality digital augmentation.”
Several attendees observed that only two of the companies present at the Digital Hall had also been exhibiting in Bologna for the past five years, and that digital studios and companies engaged in children’s media have come and gone quite quickly. “Expanding to provide a separate Digital Hall this year was a big experiment,” said Roberta Chinni, project manager of the fair. “Our goal is to have engagement between the two halls. The illustrators are kind of the ambassadors at this point. Someone like Christoph Niemann can show how there is synergy, so we are optimistic that there is a future for the two sides to work even more closely together.”